Podcast by Wendy Corbett. Text by Rebecca Lashley.
Rebecca Lashley, Worcestershire County Council’s Biodiversity officer, discusses the ecology and wildlife of traditional orchards in Worcestershire and the work the County Council is doing to promote these ancient and valuable habitats.
The boom in orchard planting and fruit production in Worcestershire throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s was fuelled by the industrial growth of Birmingham, Bristol, London, Manchester and South Wales and the rapid expansion of the country’s railway network, allowing fresh fruit to be transported on a daily basis to the produce markets of the cities. Although the number of England’s orchards has declined dramatically since the war – by up to 85% – Worcestershire still contains around 2000 hectares of orchard, about 6% of the national resource.
Vital reservoirs of biodiverse habitat
The mechanisation of agriculture brought a significant change to the way in which top fruit is produced commercially in the UK. Labour-intensive traditional orchards, with trees grown on tall, standard rootstocks, were replaced with densely-planted bush orchards better suited to management by machine rather than man, contributing to huge social and economic change within our rural landscape. Chemical application became the norm for controlling pests and diseases and traditional grazing and hay cutting of the orchard floor was replaced by mowing or spraying of herbicide.
Most of our remaining traditional orchards are now considerably neglected and derelict. However, far from serving no modern purpose these orchards are now recognised nationally as vital reservoirs of biodiverse habitat within an otherwise often intensively farmed landscape. Their history of organic management, abundance of dead or decaying timber and close association with other habitats such as species-rich grassland, hedgerows and ponds makes old traditional orchards hugely important sites for a number of wildlife species.
There are several thousand varieties of top fruit known from English orchards
Old orchards also contain a significant genetic resource. Contrary to what the supermarket shelves might lead you to believe, there are several thousand varieties of top fruit known from English orchards. Worcestershire itself lays claim to first introducing and commercially marketing 25 different varieties of apple and 4 varieties of plum (see www.worcestershireorchards.co.uk).
From the beginning of the 19th century extensive fruit nurseries developed, including around the outskirts of the city of Worcester, particularly St John’s. One famous St John’s nurseryman, Richard Smith, presided over orchards and glasshouses covering 157 acres. The Smith family business survived for almost 200 years, until the last parcel of land was sold for housing development in 1993. The breeding and introduction of new varieties to the market was a source of pride and competitiveness amongst the various nurseries.
Today, remnants of these once-extensive orchards can be discovered dotted about the city (and wider county) in parks and back gardens.
There is an increasing demand for locally distinctive and locally sourced produce
There is currently a slow but steady and gratifying revival of interest in the fortunes of Worcestershire’s old orchards, with more owners coming forward wanting to restore and replant sites and an increasing demand for locally distinctive and locally sourced produce. Traditionally managed orchards can serve a niche market for artisan ciders and perries, jams, juices and chutneys. They can also provide inspiration for community events and activities, bringing people together to celebrate and help care for this part of our heritage.
Orchards are a habitat that easily crosses urban-rural boundaries, bringing a slice of the countryside and food production into towns and cities. There are plenty of opportunities in Worcester and beyond for getting involved in community-based orchard projects.
Much of the UK’s mistletoe is concentrated around the west and south midlands
In 2010 traditional orchards were added to the UK list of priority habitats for conservation. In Worcestershire, several plant and animal species associated with orchards are of particular importance because our county contains significant populations of them. For example, much of the UK’s mistletoe is concentrated around the west and south midlands. Mistletoe is not strictly an orchard species in its own right but its favoured host tree, the domestic apple, is. The known distribution of the rare Mistletoe Marble Moth, whose larvae feed on mistletoe producing distinctive leaf mines, is also centred on Worcestershire and surrounding counties.
The Worcestershire Biological Records Centre (http://wbrc.org.uk/) is currently running a project to encourage people to get involved in conserving orchard wildlife, either by locating and checking the condition of old traditional orchards or by taking part in training to identify rare species, like Mistletoe Marble Moth or the Noble Chafer Beetle, another nationally scarce insect with a population stronghold in Worcestershire.