Devon’s World Surf Reserve at the Heart of New Flower-Filled Grasslands ‘Savannah’ Project

Flower Power!

The first patch of Devon grasslands at Woolacombe. Photograph by John Miller.

Right now, it doesn’t look like much. Just another freshly tractored field lying a stone’s throw from the high tide mark at Woolacombe Beach in North Devon. For the surfers who love to sample swells that gently roll into the Putsborough to Woolacombe stretch, the grassland patch doesn’t look much different from the rest of the baize-bordered coast.

And yet this patch, located at the heart of the North Devon World Surfing Reserve and a skip from the annual Spring Classic site, is the starting point for a network of flower-filled grasslands planned to cover 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land in north Devon by 2030.

It’s a beautifully simple plan. The Woolacombe site’s seeds were planted by the North Devon National Trust this autumn and the flowers should begin showing up in the spring. Species such as kidney vetch, viper’s-bugloss, and salad burnet have been sown, not just because of their great names, but because they will do well in dunes and on clifftops. Another site at Arlington Court, close by at Barnstaple, has had wildflower seeds such as birds-foot trefoil and knapweed sown in areas of the parkland.

These sites will later be used as “donor sites” with seeds taken from them to plant up more spots over the years. This will be a cost-effective way of scaling up the scheme. Every hectare harvested from a donor site will provide seed to sow two more hectares. Apart from looking pretty good as you paddle into a Woolacombe almost-straighthander, the new habitats should draw voles, bats, birds of prey, and butterflies.

A ranger sows the seeds for a brighter future. Photograph by John Miller.

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the trust, said, “Making changes to the land we manage ourselves and working with our tenant farmers to restore these wildlife-rich grasslands secures better soil health, helps lock in soil carbon and improves water quality in our rivers as well as supporting wildlife such as pollinators. It’s another tool in the fight efforts to help save this threatened habitat and tackle the nature and climate crises.”

It is also vitally important given that the loss of flower-rich grasslands had led to life and colour being drained from the UK’s countryside. The charity, Plantlife, says that 97% of species-rich grassland has been lost in the last century in the UK. The new network will eventually stretch across 70 miles from close to the border with Cornwall in the west to the slopes of Exmoor in the east.

Joshua Day, Project Co-ordinator at the trust in north Devon, said it would not be a continuous strip but rather a series of pockets of grassland. “It might be a patch of grassland on the edge of a village or, on a grander scale, fields full of flowers.”

The first 86 hectares, or 120 football fields, have been sown with 31 types of seed, weighing 1300 tonnes; the equivalent of a T3 Kombi, Devon-Man’s spirit vehicle. The seeds include yellow rattle, which is known as a meadow maker as it creates good conditions for other wildflowers to grow, to oxeye daisy which is great for invertebrates. All of the 31 varieties of seeds, when flowering will add to human mental well-being as the former agricultural lands explode in a haze of bright pastels and wildlife. These colourful and species-rich habitats are critical to conserving many of our threatened plants as well as the wildlife that relies on them.

It will, however, take time, with the grasslands taking a few years to establish themselves. From 2025 on the aim is to have every hectare from the donor sites providing seed to sow two more hectares. If you want more information on the project, or how to get involved head to the North Devon National Trust site.

The prep begins for the new Savannah network. Photo John Millar

This beautiful area of coastline will play host to the Spring Classic Festival in June of next year, offering an exciting weekend of surf, skate, music and beautiful sundowner sessions. Grab tickets now for a slice of the action.