Ecological restoration (or if you prefer 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, 24 years ago Ruth and Jon handed the land back to nature and started the healing process. 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 boggy areas, scrubland and meadows, woodlands and hazel coppice. The whole valley 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.
Find out more about individual habitats on Dittiscombe Estate’s Rewilding YouTube Channel.
Watch a short aerial video of Dittiscombe, filmed in April .
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 brambles, a much maligned plant, provide a good supply of late summer nectar for the bees, and food in the autumn for birds and mammals.
We are currently in the process (2022) of coppicing the hazel wood, opening up areas to allow more light to penetrate the woodland floor and provide a variety of habitats for wildlife. The cut wood will be dried and stored for use in the cottage logburners, and there will be stakes for hedging, beanpoles for the vegetable gardens, and wood for charcoal making.
We leave many cut branches and coppiced stems, which are braided into beautiful brash piles by our wonderful volunteers, to provide shelter and resting sites for wildlife, and encourage messy areas into the woodland.
The management of this part of the woodland should provide 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, and small birds.
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.
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.
During periods of heavy rain the water which runs off heavily grazed fields surrounding our valley brings with it plenty of loose soil and silt. We have really important silt traps and scraps which not only slow the water on its way through the valley, but also capture the silt. By the time it reaches our lower lake it is beautifully clear, ready to make its way down to Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve about 2 miles below us.
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 arrived in mid February 2022 to increased biodiversity and abundance in this area, and hopefully bolster the invertebrate population too.
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!