The Casual Gardener: Bob and Rosemary Salisbury living the Dream in Co Tyrone

Bob Salisbury's new book charts the transformation of a barren corner of Co Tyrone into a wildlife haven. He tells John Manley how gardening is about a partnership with nature rather than battling it

The Salisburys' garden in the snow

THERE were strong echoes of Rachel Carson's classic book Silent Spring in the scenario that greeted Bob and Rosemary Salisbury when they moved from Nottinghamshire in the English Midlands to rural Co Tyrone.

The couple were struck by the conspicuous absence of birdsong, which was indicative of a general lack of wildlife around the 17 acres near Seskinore on which they had chosen to site their new home.

Rosemary (nee D'Arcy) had grown up in the area and wanted to return home after decades working in education in England. Bob – AKA Sir Robert Salisbury, a renowned, now-retired educationalist – was more than happy to follow.

They had left behind an idyllic cottage and walled garden on the edge of Sherwood Forest and having found Tyrone's housing stock short on suitable replacements, set about building their own on land that had once belonged to Rosemary's father.

It's a substantial rural residence but on a scale not especially unusual for this millennium. The house, however, plays second fiddle to the garden – or what is perhaps best described as ‘the grounds'.

These days, the Salisburys' expansive garden is a haven for wildlife, boasting 60-plus species of birds and at least 12 mammals, including otters and Irish hares but that wasn't always the case.

“It was a rural desert when we arrived in 2003 with zero wildlife,” recalls Bob. “I was familiar with the devastating consequences of modern agricultural policy in the arable areas in the east of England but I'd always imagined Ireland had escaped the worst.”

His wife, he says, had childhood memories of lapwings, curlews and skylarks yet none had been seen or heard in the area for decades.

Bob's new book Field Of Dreams charts the 15-year transformation of a lifeless handful of fields into a huge thriving, biodiverse habitat.

“Our priority from the outset was to turn the clock back in terms of wildlife,” he says. “We'd very little understanding of biodiversity and little idea about garden design when we embarked on this project, so it's been a steep learning curve.”

The boldest and most effective addition to the garden was one of the first – three lakes that when completed were linked by walkways. When you add a wildflower meadow and woodland to this vista, you begin to appreciate what makes this space so appealing.

“It lifts the spirit like nothing else,” says Bob, who walks the garden every morning with his dogs.

There are more formal gardens and a vegetable patch closer to the house but by design it gets wilder the further you venture.

“You finally reach a point where it's impossible to tell where our garden ends and the farmland begins,” Bob says, advocating wildlife gardening whatever the scale.

“It's about changing your mindset – it's not a battle against nature, it's a partnership. Does it matter that you have holes in your hosta leaves if the hedgehogs and thrushes are eating the slugs?”

Field of Dreams celebrates the best of the Irish countryside while also lamenting the worst aspects but always with great affection and humour. And of course, Bob and Rosemary are happy to share their garden not just with wildlife but they always like to ensure that visitor numbers don't impact on nature.

:: Bob Salisbury will be giving a lunchtime talk about his garden and new book in the Botanic Gardens Palm House in Belfast on Friday June 15 as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Admission is £5. Field of Dreams is published by Blackstaff.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 to get full access