Rewilding at Dittiscombe: learning to love a new-look landscape
Author: Ruth Saunders
Arriving at Dittiscombe in 1998 we launched ourselves into the untamable and scruffy world of rewilding, and soon discovered that nature really can be trusted to do the right thing!
The wonderful world of nature is benevolent and beautiful. But because it is free for us to use and abuse as we wish, it is oh so vulnerable to our human whims.
Could the seeds of change be in the air though? It is now accepted in many quarters that for our species to thrive and survive we need biodiversity and the amazing life support system which is called nature.
And it seems Rewilding has a great part to play in this change. Rewilding is basically gifting land back to nature, leaving it to return to an uncultivated state, allowing natural processes to proceed at their own pace. It is non-interventionist, not so work-and-planning obsessed, with plenty of laissez faire and a touch of laziness thrown in for good measure!
Our rewilding story started at Dittiscombe in 1998. We had left our old frenetic lifestyle in the South East where social status dictated that ourselves and our possessions should look tidy and controlled. Everything had to have immediacy and impact and seeking a quick fix for anything which wasn’t right or perfect with our lives was the goal.
In our new lives at Dittiscombe we found ourselves the custodians of a u-shaped valley above Slapton Ley in South Devon. We thought this land was the normal pastoral scene – green fields, straight hedgerows, buttercups. But on closer inspection it seemed lackluster and derelict, in need of some tlc and, more importantly, spookily silent.
In those days the term ‘rewilding’ was not widely in use. We didn’t wish to farm, but we did love wildlife, walking and waterways, and knew a bit about organic gardening from previous careers. So how could we enjoy the land which surrounded us, and offer local wildlife (and our holiday guests!) a much-needed sanctuary too?
Decisions had to be made, so after discussions with local conservationists and ecologists, we decided to hand the land back to nature; to allow it to regenerate and heal on its own terms. There were no plans, no grazing regimes, no rotational cutting charts, no specific outcomes in mind. Just a small amount of management around the amenity areas of the guest cottages and farmhouse.
Then we just waited and watched.
In those early days so many of our conversations were about which new species had been spotted and added to the ‘finds’ list. We were always thrilled and surprised as the numbers grew and spread. But on darker days it was scary and confusing, doubting our lack of knowledge and the decision to let the land go it alone, especially early on when the creeping thistle tried a takeover, appearing in huge numbers! Then a boost of confidence and some new found knowledge was gained when the thistle was naturally taken down a peg or two by another species a year or so later. (Now we marvel at how untrusting we were of those natural processes, and admire that several strong species will happily grow together in the same patch of ground.)
And so, without fanfare, the valley started to evolve, imperceptibly at first, until guests who had been visiting Dittiscombe annually for several years commented on the changes: Gone were the mono-culture fields and straight lines; gone were the tightly cut hedges and wide-open windy spaces; gone was the clinical silence. Instead, the ponds had marginal vegetation; tree saplings were poking their heads above the undergrowth; the hedges were bursting with new growth; the grass was taller and in a lovely mix of pastel shades; new habitats were forming, butterflies and grass snakes had arrived, and songbirds were singing!
You could say that by rewilding the valley we were also unwittingly rewilding ourselves. The changes in the valley reflected the changes within us. As nature flourished around us it helped us re-imagine our lives and our priorities. It also offered an understanding of how rewilding makes it own shape and form, and offers up a new-look landscape to those who want to see it.
The thorny scrub and overgrown brambles, the long grasses which look untidy and brown at the end of August, the twisted branches and gnarled stumps, all this and more has become our beautiful new landscape within which we live and thrive alongside nature.
How much we have learned in the process about ourselves and healing, and we still are.
The rollercoaster of rewilding at Dittiscombe continues, but we hope that our little piece of valley, set aside for wildlife, will inspire others to fall in love with a new-look landscape for both nature and us.
Dittiscombe Estate & Cottages is near Slapton village in South Devon. If you’d like to know more about booking a holiday or healing retreats with us, please visit the website www.dittiscombe.co.uk, or e-mail Jon and Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.