REWILDING HILL CREST
The history of the land at Hill Crest.
The sixteen acres at Hill Crest used to be a small dairy farm, run by Kate’s great grandmother and great-uncle, and was then used for sheep grazing, with most of the land laid to grass pasture. After Kate’s great-uncle passed away in 1992, bramble and blackthorn scrub began to spread, and naturally regenerating woodland slowly started to reclaim the slopes above the stream. Sheep continued to be grazed on the land, keeping the fields cropped short and restricting the advance of trees and scrub. Later, when sheep grazing became less intensive, the fields were cut by tractor once a year to keep them looking ‘tidy’.
When we took over the property in 2012, we made the decision to remove the sheep and stop cutting the fields, to let the land revert to a more natural state and provide habitat for wildlife. In 2018 we teamed up with Moor Trees, a charity dedicated to increasing native woodland on Dartmoor and the surrounding areas, to speed up the regeneration of woodland by planting 4,500 native trees. As well as increasing the diversity of plants, fungi and animals compared to the previous use as grazed pasture, the trees will stabilise the valley slopes to prevent erosion and landslips, and lock up carbon from the atmosphere, helping to slow climate change.
Wildlife at Hill Crest.
Today, tawny owls, barn owls, kestrels and buzzards all hunt for mice, voles and rabbits in the rough grass, and sparrowhawks chase pigeons and other birds at the woodland edge. Roe deer are regularly seen, sometimes with spotted fawns in May/June, and occasionally red deer pass through. Foxes are also frequently seen, and badgers and hedgehogs forage along the tracks under cover of darkness. The overgrown hedges are home to dormice, polecats are occasionally captured on our trail cameras, and an otter has even ventured up the stream.
In the woods by the stream there are great spotted woodpeckers, jays, treecreepers and woodcock. Green woodpeckers can be seen digging for ants in the grass. Swallows return from Africa each spring. Butterflies are abundant in late spring and summer feeding on a variety of wild flowers – the most common species are peacock, meadow brown, gatekeeper, large skipper, marbled white, ringlet and common blue. Look for commas and silver washed fritillaries on the brambles at the woodland edge. Early purple and southern marsh orchids flower by the tracks in spring. Glow-worms can be seen along the edges of the tracks in July. Slow worms are common in spring and summer, and common lizards can sometimes be seen sunning themselves on stones and logs.
Neighbouring landowners have shown an interest in what we are doing, and we hope that in the future other sites may revert to a wilder state and link up with Hill Crest to form a significant habitat corridor for wildlife, a wilder backbone for Devon along the Haldon ridge; Devon Wildland. It is a small start, but combined with the vision of Moor Trees for a ‘wild heart of Dartmoor’ this could potentially lead to the creation of a large enough wild area for reintroduction of a range of formerly native species to become feasible, enabling a more natural ecosystem to be restored.