A holiday where experiences are truly wild: Guests coming to stay in Beer Mill at Stone Farm enjoy more than the usual comforts of a well-maintained rural holiday cottage. Where most countryside properties offer a nice garden, this remote holiday cottage between Bude and Clovelly n North Devon gives its guests their own conservation area in which to roam. No matter in which month you choose to travel to this little West Country paradise, there's always something to discover as you wend your way from woodland glade to chuckling stream of this natural (occasionally muddy) rural wonderland.
Let's start early in the year when things first begin to stir...
January, February, March – you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much going on in the wilds of North Devon at this time of year, most wildlife is hunkered down or hibernating while we humans are huddled indoors waiting for the winter to pass! Well, think again! We venture out along the nature trails of Beer Mill Conservation Project every single day and when we’re not there, we have ‘spy’ cameras out, capturing the wildlife activity we miss when we sit indoors sipping tea.
Here’s a glimpse into what you might be missing: in early January, for several years running, we have sent in the first records of frogs spawning in Devon from as early as the 4th of January! For us, it’s a sign that already the nights are shrinking back. The frogs are singing, you have to be quiet to hear it, but it’s quite wonderful.
These native amphibians are filling the ponds ditches and even tyre tracks with frogspawn, the next generation! In a healthy ecosystem, it’s not surprising that this busy activity attracts attention from other wildlife. We see this plentiful food supply (sorry frogs!) falling prey to otters, tawny owls, foxes (they don’t like to get their feet wet!), buzzards, herons, corvids (usually cleaning up after the others) and the graceful grey herons.
These winter months are a great time for capturing the strange light that is only here when the sun is low in the sky. Wild snowdrops abound in the hedgerows, redwing, fieldfare and starlings flock together moving from field to field feeding. Woodcock return loyally, each year to their winter hiding places and are startled awake as we pass through the woods. Common snipe, visiting from colder climates, fly out unexpectedly, making their distinctive alarm call as they are disturbed from their hiding places in the wet grasslands which provides them with shelter and camouflage.
Through these winter months we are already looking out for the first glimpse of a butterfly: we’ve spotted brimstone, peacocks and red admirals in February.
Soon after the first flight of orange tips appear, taking advantage through March of the woodland flowering plants such as common dog violet and small wild daffodils. Of course, some of the flowers get trampled by the rolling and antics of the badgers who put their heads above ground to play, groom, stretch, feed and do a little housekeeping! Nothing like a good spring clean and a belly full of beetles. Meanwhile, moles, who live solitary lives, are getting together to make babies and molehills appear in groups across the rough meadows, perfect for our school groups to make into molehill palaces!
Before you know it, the toads are spawning and it feels like spring is here. The toad spawn is laid in long strings and looks very different to that of the frogs. It all seems to happen rather suddenly with the toads forming large ‘balls’ of animals as many males each try to mate with a female, she is often overwhelmed!
April, May, June – Busier than an international airport! Winter migrants are leaving and summer visitors are arriving from distant lands. We welcome swallows, house martins, passing swifts, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, whitethroats, grasshopper and willow warblers when they return from their travels to nest, swelling the numbers of resident birds. The dawn chorus is certainly worth waking up for and even jumping out of bed for! (but not every day).
Wildflowers abound, especially in the woodlands before the trees come into leaf. Our native bluebells spread out across the ‘ghost’ ancient woodland, sanicle lines the pathways of the Woodpecker wood, marsh marigold and wild garlic fill up unlikely spaces and the air fills with some powerful perfumes.
With longer daylight hours and the warmth of the sun, invertebrates are breeding, providing food for the birds and mammals further up the food chain. Herbivores are fattening up on the fresh green growth of grasses and shoots and babies are everywhere while hunters, both large and small, are out and about, needing to feed their families.