Gifting the land back to Nature at Dittiscombe

Ecological restoration (aka rewilding) has been at the heart of Dittiscombe Estate & Cottages since Ruth and Jon Saunders became the custodians in 1998. Research of old farm records shows that Dittiscombe was a substantial farm of 500 acres in the 1930s, but after the Second World War, when the area was evacuated due to D-day landing practices at nearby Start Bay, it gradually fell into disrepair and the land piecemeal sold off.

In the 1980s the farm buildings were converted to holiday cottages but the residual farmland of 20 acres was never restored. However, 23 years ago Ruth and Jon started the healing process with a hands off approach and the land was gifted back to nature. The recovery, with all the natural processes taking over, has been astonishingly fast and there is now an abundance of wildlife. This gives everyone who comes here hope that nature will bounce back quickly if it is allowed to do so.

The landscape has changed from sterile and unloved fields to a mosaic of habitats: ponds and bogs, scrapes and silt traps, streams and rills, woodland and hazel coppice, hedgerows, scrubland and meadows, and the cottage gardens. The whole is filled with a variety of wildlife, a sanctuary in a fragmented landscape, and is also a place of peace and recuperation for family, friends, guests and visitors.

The Woodland & Hazel Wood

The main woodland was planted 24 years ago with over 4,000 native deciduous trees and some evergreens. With a mixture of fast growing trees like larch and pine, and slower growing trees such as Oak and Beech, the differing canopies and tree heights offer varied feeding, nesting and sheltering opportunities for all types of wildlife. 

The wood, after a relatively short time, is now a home or resting place for many new species to the valley – roe deer, woodcock, jays, tawny owls, cuckoo, long-tailed tits, blackcaps and willow warblers to name just a few.

The woodland floor (the understory) is naturally filling in with young elder and spindleberry, cherry saplings, brambles and ferns. The bramble, a much maligned plant, are a good supply of late summer nectar for the bees, and food in the autumn for birds and mammals.

With natural thinning and storm damage we are able to cut, store and dry out logs for use in the cottage log-burners. We leave cut branches and some coppiced stems, brash piles and messy areas to provide important shelter for reptiles, rabbits and other mammals.

In 2018 the Hazel Wood was coppiced by a volunteer team from the Woodland Trust. More warmth and light in this wood makes it a magnet for butterflies and bats who prefer the open space for hunting. The new plant and shrub growth around the coppicing provides diversity and height, offering food and nesting sites for mammals such as beetles and reptiles, stoats and weasels, wood mice and dormice.

In 2019 a new small woodland of 200 whips of deciduous  native trees which include rowan, wild cherry and oak from the Woodland Trust was planted by a group of friends in the higher valley. This new woodland is already making great progress and will blend with an already established area of scrub of elder, hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel. 

The Orchard

Some years ago the orchard above Dovecote and Buddleia cottages was re-instated with several local varieties of eating, cider and cooking apples. In bountiful years our cider apples are collected and supplied to Heron Valley Cider who make a variety of dry, medium and sparkling ciders for sale locally and nationally. Our dessert and cooking apples are available to guests free of charge, usually in September and October.

It’s in this area that we hear the whitethroats, who have travelled probably from as far as Africa, to raise a brood in the scrub around the orchard.

The Ponds & Streams

There are several spring-fed ponds connected by a small stream which runs through the valley.  A stroll around the nature trail takes you past the ponds, with benches and seats along the way to view the wildlife which is attracted to these areas. Little grebes, mallards and moorhens, damselflies, emperor dragonflies, grass snakes and butterflies use the surrounding vegetation for protection, for food and as nesting sites.

The ‘top’ pond (just below The Owlery) is visited by many moths and butterflies during the summer months.  By the ‘middle’ pond the statue of the Dittiscombe Angler waits for his fish, and on a seat  under the weeping birch you can listen to the birdsong and the buzz of the bees.

With a more open space of water, the ‘lower’ wildlife pond is a great source of insect food for martins, swallows and bats, and is surrounded with willows and alders, giving shade and protection to the wildfowl.

The Meadows

This is an important area of conservation as unimproved grassland is becoming rare. There are several areas of grassland, meadows and marshland which follow the natural watercourse of the valley.

In 2021 the tall grasses were awash with crickets and common grasshoppers, plenty of food for hungry young birds. The wet grassy areas near the streams are home to frogs, toads, and grass snakes, and the marsh thistles, wild angelica and hogweed, which follow the watercourse, make a dramatic display in the summer, attracting thousands of beetles, hoverflies and bees.

A small herd of Dexter cattle will be arriving in mid February 2022 to disturb the soil and to open up some area of scrub. In this way we hope to attract more species of plants and therefore increase the insect population.

Hedgerows

Although we haven’t measured them we believe there may be several miles of hedgerow at Dittiscombe! We have the traditional type of Devon hedgerow which is a mostly thorny hedge planted on top of a bank. This vital ecosystem provides food, shelter, nesting sites, and a transport system for many species. We cut our hedges on a rotational system in Winter, leaving berries and small insects for the birds for as long as possible.

The ‘bat corridor’ which runs between the cottages and a high hedge with occasional trees, is a perfect place to watch bats sourcing food during the summer months.

Read about the wonderful world of South Devon Hedgerows in Ruth’s Blog.

Old Stone Barns & Walls

The walls of the stone barns are very attractive to many animals: there are small holes for solitary bees; the moths, butterflies and dragonflies love to warm up on the heat they retain; and very small birds such as wrens enjoy the insects which hide in the lime mortar. The ‘old barn’ and various other ruins have been left in place and these buildings offer shelter and nesting sites for Jackdaws, Bats, Pied Wagtails, nesting Swallows, hedgehogs, and many insects.

Our thanks to Christian Cook for his wonderful sketch of the old barn and stone cottages observed from the higher valley in August 2021.

The Cottage Gardens

Each of the six cottages has a private garden with a lawn, hedges, stone walls, pots, baskets and borders.  The borders are filled with shrubs, perennials and bulbs to provide colour and interest all year round. Hedges and stone walls surround the cottages, with navelwort and red valerian making lovely displays in the spring and summer. Rockeries are dotted around the cottages showing off the hot colours of poppies and kniphofia, and the subtler shades of lavenders, hebes and geraniums.

You can see lots of photos of our valley in the gallery, and more detailed descriptions of each garden on individual cottages pages.

Nature Further Afield

Dittiscombe Estate is a 10-minute drive or a 50-minute walk from the nearest village of Slapton.

The winding lanes (drivers take note!) and pretty cottages with roses round the door are typical of this type of South Hams village. But what sets Slapton apart from any other is its proximity to Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve. This large freshwater lagoon sits behind a shingle bar, protected from the salty water of the sea and is of national scientific importance, managed by Slapton Field Study Centre which is located in the centre of the village. The Ley also provides a wonderful opportunity to see bird migrations in the Autumn, and the spectacle of Starling murmurations in the Winter.

The ‘do it yourself’ Slapton Ley nature trail starts just outside the Field Centre and takes you via paths and boardwalks, past reedbeds and open water, through woodland, stopping now and then at information points and bird hides, where you finally emerge at Slapton ‘bridge’. A short hop over the road and you are at Slapton Sands beach which stretches in both directions, east towards Strete Gate and west towards Start Point – in all about 3 miles long! How many different eco-systems (diverse habitats) could you find anywhere else in one marvellous walk!

Walk to Slapton from Dittiscombe

If you’d like to take the walk from your cottage door down to Slapton and around the Ley there is a map with written directions in each cottage. The walk may take you several hours in total, so walkers should allow plenty of time to look at the hedgerows and views on the way down, and to get back up the hill on the way home!

Local Gardens of the South Hams

Further afield there are several National Trust Houses & Gardens to visit such as:  Greenway, ‘the loveliest place in the world’, originally owned by Agatha Christie, is now open to the public; Coleton Fishacre near Kingswear, is a garden by the sea, with an Arts & Crafts-style house (you can read Ruth’s blog about her recent visit); Overbeck’s is a luxuriant coastal garden overlooking the Salcombe estuary and surrounds an elegant Edwardian house with diverse collections; and Saltram near Plymouth is a magnificent Georgian house with opulent Robert Adam interiors, gardens, follies and landscape parkland.

Also of interest is Dartington Hall Gardens near Totnes, planted with great trees and connecting paths which meander through the mature woodland and past a number of sculptural features including a reclining figure by Henry Moore.

Avon Mill Garden Centre is a favourite of our returning guests. It is situated by the banks of the river, in the peaceful Avon Valley near Loddiswell. Visitors can choose from a wide range of plants, then drop into the cafe and delicatessen. There is also a wonderful scenic woodland walk from the centre which follows the old mill leat and Primrose Line Railway alongside the Avon River.

  • The Rewilding Journey

    Rewilding walks and talks at Dittiscombe EstateRead more about Ruth & Jon’s rewilding journey here.

  • The Nature Trail

    The nature trail will take you into the woodland, past ponds & streams, and through the meadows and fields.

  • Peace & Tranquility

    Press the pause button here in the valley – no traffic noise, clear night skies, early morning bird song.

  • Forest Bathing

    Immerse yourself in the woodland: we are offering new Forest Bathing (aka Shinrin Yoku) sessions during 2022

  • National Nature Reserve at Slapton

    Our natural watercourse of streams, springs and ponds, filters toxins from surrounding farmland as it makes its way into the freshwater lagoon at Slapton Ley.

  • Butterfly & Moth Meadows

    Marbled white butterfly on yarrowMeadows and unimproved grassland in the higher valley is home to over 100 recorded species.

  • Bat corridor

    Wildflower banks at Dittiscombe EstateThe bat corridor runs along a beautiful old Devon hedge, with layers of foliage underneath and in-hedge trees – great for bat foraging.

  • Bee heaven!

    We have a long season for bumblebees, bees and hoverflies with the availability of nectar rich plants and trees in a mosaic of habitats.

  • Could Messy Gardening Save the Planet?

    If you’re interested in restoring your green space for nature, read Ruth’s blog here.

We’ve stayed here a couple of times now. Great cottages, and now really good Broadband. Excellent, welcoming hosts. The owners are undertaking a long term rewilding project so the grounds are amazing to take a walk around.

Wyatt FamilyAugust 2021

The location and estate grounds are beautiful, with nature being at the heart of it all. I call it Eden. A utopian getaway from the rush and trials of life. Peace and tranquility abound. Loved every second.

Chris & LizAugust 2021

Such a beautiful estate which Ruth and Jon maintain so well. If you are seeking a peaceful, quiet place to relax, then we cannot recommend Dittiscombe Cottages highly enough. Looking forward to our next visit already.

Steve & Colleen with GeorgeJuly 2021

The cottages are nestled in a beautiful valley of wild flowers and hills and woods. Ruth and Jon are on hand if needed, they are friendly and helpful. They have worked hard on the 20 acre estate, to develop it in an ecological way … It is a wonderful place to walk in and be surrounded by the beauty of nature.

Chris & MarniAugust 2021

Amazing place! So peaceful, tranquil and beautiful. Lots of wonderful opportunities for stargazing and sky watching.

Jackie & MarkSeptember 2021

It was a real delight to be woken every morning by the sound of birds singing and the occasional owl.

Kleibergen FamilyApril 2021

About Jon & Ruth

Originally from East Sussex, we made a life-style move from hectic lives in publishing and surveying to our tranquil valley in the glorious South Hams. We had visited South Devon many times on holiday, and it always felt like we were in the best place in the world. We thought it would be a wonderful area to bring up our young family, so in 1998 we were lucky enough to find Dittiscombe farmhouse with six stone cottages and 20 acres of land.

Twenty-three years and lots of hard work and commitment later we have a thriving rewided valley in the heart of the South Hams.

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