Saturday, March 13, 2010

Decline of the Traditional British Orchard

By Rachel Gawith

Conservationists have warned of the loss of Britain's traditional orchards. Recent figures from The National Trust indicate that up to 60% of orchards have been lost since the 1950s due to changes in land use and the increase in commercial fruit growers. This had led to a dramatic loss in important wildlife habitat in addition to the danger of losing traditional and local varieties of fruit including apples, pears and cherries.

Particularly concerned about the loss of habitat for some of Britain's important and valuable wildlife, The National Trust has launched a £536,000 scheme to encourage the reversal of orchard decline. In 2007 the government prioritised the saving of orchard habitats due to their unique eco systems. Traditional orchards with spaced tree's allowing low grazing stock such as sheep to graze are low intensity managed. With little or no chemicals being used, trees are allowed to mature to old and gnarled individuals allowing the perfect habitat for the lesser spotted woodpecker and the chafer beetle. In addition they also supply a rich source of nectar and pollen for Britain's declining bee population.

But it is also the loss of historical and regional fruits that is under scrutiny. With the 21st century already hurrying by The National Trust has appointed Kate Merry to act as orchard officer in a bid to halt the destruction: "We now have a real opportunity to reverse the decline of traditional orchards and recognise the important role they play in our cultural and natural heritage". Many local varieties of fruit, plums and damsons included, may even be lost with us never realising. The campaign will endeavour to manage existing orchards, promote new sites, and train people how to manage orchards successfully.

And the work has already begun with a survey of over 100 orchards showing substantial numbers of species, many of them rare, living in these natural habitats. At Killerton Estate, Devon, the programme to reverse orchard loss has been a success with the survey showing the inclusion of the orchard park beetle and the apple tree lace bug. It also proved to be a feeding place for long eared bats. Apples are used to make cider and chutney in a bid to help sustain the rejuvenation, two species being unique to the estate.

With demand for outstripping supply, traditional orchards can never replace that of large commercial companies. However, the traditional British orchard, with its unique wildlife habitat, with its contribution to the local economy, with its supply of unique and home grown finery, cannot be left to dwindle to oblivion. The British countryside would be less without it.

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1 comment:

  1. interesting - there are so many relict orchards around. We have one ourselves with only a few trees. But the old maps show where it once was. Apparently there are grants available through the environmental stewardship scheme to reinstate orchards. They'll even DNA test your apples I'm told, so as to help you reinstate local varieties.