Nature conservation has been at the heart of Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages since it was purchased by Ruth and Jon Saunders in 1998. In the 1930s Dittiscombe Hills was a significant farm of 500 acres. After the Second World War, when the area was evacuated due to D-day landing practices at Start Bay, the farm gradually fell into disrepair.
In the 1980s the farm buildings were converted to holiday cottages and since 1998 the residual farmland of 20 acres has seen a gradual and natural a process of rewilding, thanks to manual land management and minimal intervention. Dittiscombe Hills is is now a diverse landscape with many wildlife habitats: cottage gardens, ponds, silt traps, streams, woodland, hedgerows and meadows. This is all managed by us solely for the preservation of local species and migrating birds and insects, and for the enjoyment of our cottage guests.
Dittiscombe Nature Trail
On the Dittiscombe Nature Trail guests will discover a tranquil valley and lovely views. A stroll the along the mown grass paths, past the stream-fed ponds and through the woodland and meadows will unveil a valley filled with a variety of habitats and bird song. The paths lead to:
The Woodland & Hazel Wood
The main woodland was planted about 22 years ago with over 1,000 native deciduous trees and some evergreens. Some species like the Larch have reached full height, others such as the Oak and Beech will take much longer. We now have a wide range of birds living and visiting and you can wander through the woods and clearings and enjoy the birdsong.
With natural thinning and storm damage we are able to cut and store the logs for use in the cottage log-burners. Since the trees have grown taller it is now home to many news species to the valley – roe deer, woodcock, jays, tawny owls and long-tailed tits to name just a few.
Recently the Hazel Wood was coppiced by a volunteer team from the Woodland Trust. Bringing more light into this wood we should see more butterflies and bats using the open space, and a more diverse range of plants for food and nesting sites for mammals such as stoats and weasels, wood mice and dormice.
Some years ago the orchard above Dovecote and Buddleia cottages was re-instated with several local varieties of eating, cider and cooking apples. In good 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.
Guests can wander through the orchard which offers lovely views of the valley and a glimpse of the sea at Bolt Tail with the estuary town of Salcombe seen perched on the side of the hill.
The Ponds & Streams
There are several spring-fed ponds connected by a small stream which runs through the valley. Guests can stroll around the nature trail which meanders past the ponds, with benches and seats along the way to view the wildlife which is attracted to these areas. Coots, 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 guests can sit under the weeping birch listening to the birdsong and enjoy the rhododendrons, spirea and bottlebrush around the edges. With a wide 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.
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, and guests are welcome to explore these. The wet grassy areas near the streams are home to many frogs and toads, and the marsh thistles, wild angelica and giant hogwort, which follow the watercourse, make a dramatic display in the summer. Using a wildlife friendly grass cutting regime, these areas attract many species including bees, butterflies, moths, finches and glow worms.
We are continually planting nectar rich plants to provide even more food for bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and beetles. We try to attract more insects and by doing so, more wildlife will follow. We already have an abundance of red valerian, meadow sweet, gorse and ox-eye daisies which provide a wonderful display in the banks and walls, and along the borders of the ponds and streams.
Although we haven’t measured them we believe there may be several miles of hedgerow at Dittiscombe! Hedges are a vital part of the valley, providing food, shelter, nesting sites and a transport system for species under threat such as the Hedgehog and the Dormouse. We cut our hedges in late Winter, leaving berries and small insects for the birds for as long as possible.
Read about the wonderful world of South Devon Hedgerows in Ruth’s Blog.
Old Stone Barns and Walls
The stone walls and old ruins have been left in place offering much-needed shelter and nesting sites for Jackdaws, Bats, Pied Wagtails, Swallows, hedgehogs, solitary bees and other insects.
Ideal for Children
Our visiting children can become a Dittiscombe Wildlife Detective using the wildlife pack in the family cottages to help find and identify the plants and animals that live in the valley. The owner, Ruth, offers guided walks to explain the methods we use to encourage wildlife and manage the landscapes.
Nature Further Afield
Dittiscombe Hills is a 10-minute drive or a 50-minute walk from the nearest village of Slapton and Slapton Sands beach. 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. It’s a great wildlife watching area and knowledgeable staff at the Field Centre offer coastal walks, bird, bat and badger days, guided tours and nature safaris around the Ley. They also open a Beach Activity Trailer at Slapton Sands during the Summer holidays. 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 the 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 the cottage file. Please 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!
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.
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.