Worcestershire Record No. 19 November 2005 pp. 61-62
Brian M Stephens
(See note at the end of this article – Ed)
English Nature has set up an important project to investigate the history, condition and wildlife of traditional orchards in England. Since the war most such orchards have gone; for example south Buckinghamshire has lost 40 per cent and Wiltshire 95 per cent. In the Bewdley area almost every dwelling was once a smallholding with orchards, making a distinctive landscape. Most of these have gone. A DEFRA census suggests only 7,000 ha (17,298 acres) of traditional orchard habitat remain in England. It is important to rescue old fruit varieties and conserve orchard habitats. The objectives of the National survey are presented below.
1. To review existing information on the extent, distribution, biodiversity and management of traditional orchards in England, including their biodiversity value as related to individual orchards and to their role in the landscape.
2. To review the current conservation status of orchards and the available mechanisms that could achieve their conservation, including an examination of the relationship between conservation of orchard biodiversity and other potential public benefits such as genetic conservation, resource protection and landscape character.
3. To sample a number of representative orchards to assess their biodiversity interest, with particular reference to invertebrates, lower plants and fungi.
4. From the information gained in the study produce recommendations for criteria which can be used to assess orchard quality and condition in relation to biodiversity, and also to make recommendations for management that will conserve and enhance biodiversity, with, where appropriate, especial reference to modifications of current practices.
As part of this nation-wide survey English Nature commissioned the Wyre Forest Study Group to make an intensive study of three old orchards near Bewdley and on the edge of Wyre Forest. The study group comprises about thirty amateur naturalists, each with a specialist interest in particular groups of plants or animals. The work continued throughout 2004 and a full report was completed by February 2005. The report addressed the third of the above objectives in particular. As regards the fourth objective, to assess orchard quality and condition, an inventory of each of the 260 trees was completed and the details summarised on spread-sheets. A "Scale of Vitality" was suggested as a quick and simple means of describing and comparing orchards and this method is outlined below.
The study area
The site is a private farm within the Wyre Forest SSSI, with the three orchards in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
Wyre Forest and the farmland adjacent, overlies Carboniferous Coal measures. The Etruria Marl on the surface gives heavy acidic to neutral soils with sand, silt, clay and patches of hard sandstone and conglomerates and little topsoil. The farm lies at an altitude between 80 and 100 m.
Each orchard has rough grassland, grazed most of the year by cattle. There have been no sheep for at least twenty years. Of course many species relate to this and other habitats rather than to orchard trees per se. The sward for the most part showed signs of improvement in the past and consisted of Ryegrass/Crested dog’s-tail/ Sweet vernal grass, and various forbs, (corresponding to National Vegetation Classification MG6 with some MG5).
Cherry Orchard ( 4.7 acres) has 77 cherry trees mostly from the early 1930's, with some surviving from an even earlier planting, and two apples - a single Charles Ross and a Worcester Permain. (?1930's).
Old Orchard (3.5 acres) has 28 large pear trees of at least four varieties (possibly Perry Pears) which were already old in 1929, but planted after the farm was bought at the Crown Sale of 1870. The area first appears as orchard on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1883. Of unknown age are nine dying and mature apple trees, including; Lady's Finger of Hereford, Newton Wonder, King of the Pippins and Worcester Permain.
Far Orchard ( 4.9 acres) was cleared from ancient Oak forest after the Crown Sale of 1870, but although not part of the original farm it appears included as orchard on the 1883 OS map. The present stand is believed to be of a mid -1930's planting, with, at present, 18 Damson trees (Shropshire Prune), 82 large cherry trees (varieties still to be determined) and 44 apples, Annie Elizabeth and Bramley. There are three Rival and one which was thought to be Belle de Pontoise.
The names of cherry varieties are tentative and identification notoriously difficult. The following are suggested for the Cherry Orchard; Bradbourne Black, Black Eagle, Black Elton, Black Oliver, Eagle, Early Rivers, Elton, Napoleon, Roundel, Smokey Dun, but it will be some time before all the cherries can be named. Poor crops on dying trees and flocks of birds limit mature fruit needed for naming.
The species collections
Of the hundreds of records, mainly insects, most species are normally common in woodland, hedgerow or meadow. A number of species, in several of the groups, are of interest as rare, or nationally scarce, or more locally distributed, and more are likely to be found as identification work proceeds, and, as with fungi, species appear in response to appropriate conditions. Orchard pests like Codlin Moth Cydia pomonella, will be included , but have not been distinguished as such.
The data below, extracted from the report, will suffice to summarise the mass of specialised detail and give some impression of the richness of this orchard habitat. The Far Orchard received most attention and the data reflect the extent and methods of sampling.
The report includes 1459 species, but so many insects were collected by the two Malaise traps (a sort of muslin tent, left standing in the field, where insects collect and fall into liquid preservative.) set up in the Cherry and Far Orchards that identification is still continuing. The report includes insects from the traps identified up to the end of July 2004. Similarly, work continues on fruit identification and the history of the fruit trade in the Bewdley area, which was a centre for cherry production until about fifty years ago. (Any information gratefully received.)
|Group||Number of species in each orchard||Total number of different species|
|Bees, wasps, ants||54||4||70||100|
|Butterflies & moths||102||160||242||*316|
|Dragonflies & Damselflies||1||1||2||3|
|Slugs and snails||6||0||4||9|
|†Note 1 Some species occur in one, two or all three orchards. *Note 2 Butterflies 16, moths 300|
A SCALE OF VITALITY
At the outset, each of the 260 trees was labelled in its row and column so that all records could be matched to the detailed inventory. Systematically describing large numbers of fruit trees raises a number of issues. There is a National scheme for describing and recording veteran trees such as single specimens of ancient oak or yew, but this method does not work so well with orchard trees for the purpose of this survey, even though in terms of fruit trees those in the present study are ancient. One aspect of the "Veteran Tree Record" is that there is little concern with dead trees, also in contrast to the circumstances of wild native trees, those of cultivated orchard trees are markedly different and the purpose of the record is different.
A simple Vitality Scale has been introduced with score '10' for healthy mature trees and score '1' for final decay. Thus death comes in the middle of the scale, and the long continuous process of decline from maturity to death, breakdown and eventually final decay is included on a continuous scale. Apples and damsons die back from below while pears and cherry become stag-headed. Wind damage and disease show varying effects, so criteria for each of the ten stages of the scale have to be judged.
The stages of the scale are as follows. In practice it was helpful to consider the trunk, branches and canopy with separate criteria, but common sense applied under the ten headings is often sufficient to make a decision. Full leaf is needed, but the scale takes no account of blossom or fruit.
|10 More or less healthy|
|9 Signs of decline|
|8 Definitely declining|
|7 Obviously dying|
|6 More than half dead|
|1 Final remains|
One can easily walk the orchard and allocate one of the scores to each tree. If the numbers in each category are added up, the number of trees which occur on each of the points of the scale immediately give an overall view of the orchard and reveals the health and stages of decay. For some surveys this may be sufficient, and permits comparison with other sites.
An inventory of all trees
However, for this study a single number does not give a complete picture of a tree. Several other details were recorded from each tree and these were coded and tabulated. Girth, height and spread reflect growth rates and response to planting distances; leaning, uprooted or propped trunks reflect wind and exposure; rotten, hollow or fissured trunks result from broken branches, water ingress and fungal attack, but afford insect habitats and nest sites; broken, cut and dead branches indicate health and damage perhaps from pruning or heavy crops. Bark is often detached following infestation of sapwood by insects or fungi. Later in the decay process, breakdown of heart-wood commences, but in other cases the heart rots first, leaving a living hollow tree. There is some evidence for a succession of insects and fungi using cell contents, cellulose or lignin as food, during the rotting process. Additionally notes on fungi, nests and epiphytes were included to complete the descriptions. Identifying fruit varieties, and determining blossoming and ripening times is ongoing.
COMMENTS AND A FEW CONCLUSIONS
A large number of insects and species of other groups depend upon dead wood for habitat and food supply, a few significant species it would seem prefer fruit wood in particular. Of more importance is the species-rich habitat afforded by the semi-woodland of an old orchard. For the sites described above, extensive oak woodland is nearby, but the further from woodland the traditional orchard would be an important refuge especially if the sward is managed appropriately.
Of course many trees are going to mature and decline. To retain the habitat, orchards must be replanted and dead wood removed, as has happened many times in the past. It is a lot to expect a land-holder to keep a lot of dead trees for the sake of certain insects (which anyway appear very adaptable), restricting the land use and wasting good firewood. It would be reasonable to expect dead wood to be stacked so that larvae can develop and wood decay allowed to follow a natural course.
What is essential is to protect the genetic resources and certainly the fruit varieties. Living fruit trees have little or no formal protection, let alone dead and decaying trees. There would seem to be a strong case for some sort of registration of old non-commercial orchards, perhaps like listed buildings or archaeological sites, or even SSSI, from which fruit varieties could be re-propagated and opportunity for assessment of conservation value afforded when proposed work is notified.
Apples and pears have received much more attention and interest in recent years yet there seems to be little interest in cherries. It would be valuable if suitable land in this area could be found to set up a collection of cherry varieties as in the past it was noted for its extensive cherry orchards which at blossom time attracted so many Victorian and Edwardian visitors.
(Editor’s note. It is hoped that further aspects of this important orchard study will be reported in future numbers of Worcestershire Record. The Report to English Nature contains much new information about the biodiversity of orchards. This is being used in preparing guidance for developing farm stewardship schemes aimed at maintaining old orchards. Hopefully such schemes will both protect the rich habitat of decaying trees and encourage new in-planting to bring on a new generation of fruit trees, especially of older varieties. It is hoped that the first Report will be developed to appear as an English Nature Research Report so making the information more widely available. The work to date as been undertaken by volunteer amateur naturalists, helped by a small grant from English nature.)
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