Re-Wilding North Devon – Handing Our Garden Back to Nature

We’re lucky to have an acre of garden to play with. Our home is nestled in rich, lush farmland just a few miles from the north Devon coast. It’s very beautiful, but even though we’re remote we don’t live in the countryside. It’s agricultural land, farmed to death, and there’s very little room for wildlife. So we decided to get busy re-wilding our plot. 
We spent last summer, our first here, getting to know the garden: what plants we had, what came up when. This year is all about re-wilding, making the space work as hard for wildlife as it does for us, so we’ve let around a third of it revert to its natural state. A regular lawn, after all, is nothing more than a wildlife desert.
When the Beast from the East struck earlier this year, we were visited every day by a flock of twenty five starving yellowhammers, rare birds at the best of times since they live on the seeds of wild plants. To help them and other seed-and insect eaters – plus our local squirrels, foxes, badgers, deer, shrews, field mice and dormice, lizards, voles and water voles – we’ve created several large areas that are now completely wild.
One is the site of an old greenhouse we demolished, a large oval area that’s so swampy, even in summer, that we’ve just let it go natural. Now it’s packed with lush vegetation and looks like a horizontal version of a Devon Bank: various reeds, at least ten different kinds of wildflower, lots of grasses, mosses and lichens.
We also have a large chunk of boggy stream-side land that was laid to lawn but is now a strip of grassy and flowery wilderness for creatures to call their own. Plus a decent-sized, very dry wildflower and grass meadow that was originally part of the back lawn, and another damp area – including a small wildlife pond – that made a crap lawn but makes a brilliant mini-wilderness. Thanks to all that, and the small patch of varied deciduous woodland at the end of the garden, we’re attracting more species than ever.
We have a large ex-swimming pool in the back garden, which apparently decayed into a wildlife pond at least fifteen years ago. We’re maintaining it in a wild state to nurture the many frogs, toads, newts, several kinds of dragonfly and demoiselle fly, water beetles, water boatmen, water skaters, leeches and other amazing beings who already make it their home.
We’ve let indigenous plants take over the remaining chunks of lawn, rather than trying to achieve a wildlife-rejecting billiard table of a lawn with military stripes. Yes, there’s grass. And we mow it. But there’s also a tight mesh of buttercups and daisies, clover, moss and lots more tiny plants that, when you get close up, are extraordinarily pretty. Because they’re native and local they’re a lot more drought-tolerant than lawn grass alone. They’re also better at coping with the winter wet when the whole site turns into a squishy swamp thanks to the underlying geology: a thin layer of topsoil that just about covers a deep layer of sticky, yellow, 30 million year old clay.
The caddis fly larva-filled stream bordering one side of our plot acts as nature’s motorway. It springs, fresh and cold, from the earth two fields up from our garden, on top of Haddacott Moor, a protected area of ancient culm grassland. The small, deep V-shaped valley the stream has worn for itself over millennia is the route animals use to traverse the otherwise-unfriendly landscape, taking them down off the moor and ultimately hooking up with the River Torridge, the estuary, and the sea.
Last but not least, planting-wise we’re letting the wild species have their way in our flower beds, simply adding plenty of insect-friendly cultivated flowers amongst the locals. As a mixture, it’s actually very beautiful and provides even more space and resources for nature to thrive. We don’t dig, since no-dig gardening is so much better for the soil. And we do ‘messy gardening’, creating lots of small piles of twigs and vegetation in out-of-the-way places where they naturally rot down.
If you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space, any outdoor space, it’s always possible to set some of it aside for nature, even if it’s just a flowerpot full of wildflowers on a city centre patio. How about you? Have you done any re-wilding? I’d love to know what you’ve done to make space for nature…

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