The village is on the edge of Exmoor, and fairly close to the North Devon coast. The countryside around is mostly woodland, open pasture and moorland, and the grounds of Arlington Court close by are managed to encourage wildlife.
Ancient raised hedges surround all the lanes, and primroses, sheepsbit scabious and wild strawberry plants thrive on their steep sides. Although beech is a traditional Devon hedging tree, many of the Shirwell hedges are largely composed of hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and even some holly.
Red deer and buzzards can often be seen, and despite the local cats there is a good population of smaller birds. Some of the higher fields around the village support larks, and walking through the fields when the larks are singing high all around and above you is a fantastic experience.
There are a number of foxes about, though you will be lucky to spot a rural fox. However, Shirwell has recently been visited by a fox who is anything but rural in his habits: he has been known to steal wellington boots and plastic garden ornaments. He is probably a tame urban fox which someone has illicitly decided to relocate.
On wet nights, the roads are often scattered with common toads out after slugs and snails. They may appear ugly from a distance, but have gorgeous amber eyes.
A pair of buzzards have nested for a good while in the small wood next to Shirwell Mill - you can't mistake them for any other bird, with their very wide 'fingered' wings and distinctive circling.
The Exmoor Beast
The most famous element of the wildlife of North Devon is perhaps the Exmoor Beast. The Beast has been seen in the Shirwell area several times, and has been described as a big cat, perhaps a black panther, though puma, leopard, and lynx have also been suggested.
Sheep on Exmoor have been attacked by a mystery animal. Though some think this could have been dogs, markings on some of the bodies suggest the activities of a big cat. There have also been many eyewitness reports, which appear to describe several different animals. Some smaller exotic cats have been shot in the area, but so far nothing large enough to bring down a sheep.
It was originally thought that the presence of big cats on Exmoor might be explained by the presence of pets which were released when the keeping of large cats by private individuals was regulated in the 1970s. However, any animals released then would be dead by now, so some believe that the released animals managed to establish a breeding colony.(There have been claims that cubs have been seen). It is also possible thatthere have been further releases or escapes from zoos or people keeping big cats illicitly. However another view is that there is a native breed of large cats, previously unknown in the UK, roaming the moors. This does not seem a very likely theory, however!
One theory says that the Beast has a regular yearly migration pattern which takes it through Shirwell.
Find out more about the Exmoor Beast and other British Big Cats.
The Arlington estate is next door to Shirwell. It has some impressive ancient woodland as well as newer beech and sweet chestnut plantations. It's particularly remarkable for unusual lichens on the trees. For those who prefer the spectacular,there are bluebell woods.
The heronry on the far side of the estate is well worth a visit even if you aren't a dedicated birdwatcher. The herons are very noisy in spring and you can hear them croaking and rearranging branches to suit themselves from a good distance away. The farms further away from the main house towards Loxhore and Shirwell are good places to see red deer, if you are lucky, and there is a hide for more serious birdwatching. At the right time of year, look out for frogs around the upper pond near the stables.
The house is also worth a visit, though it is rather pricy to go in. It has been less 'National Trustified' than some places. Many of Rosalie Chichester's great collections are still there, including a complete set of models of the 'little ships' from the battle of Dunkirk. If you are feeling cheap, just go round the grounds: they are large enough to keep you busy for some time. Oh, and the Tearoom and restaurant are all right, though not as good as Cotehele.