Why do traditional orchards matter?
From the outermost roots in the undisturbed soil of an orchard, to the tips of the fruit-laden branches, the biodiversity of unsprayed traditional orchards is almost without equal. Fruit-laden trees cast a dappled shade on the sward, songbirds nest in the hedgerows, dead wood hollows alive with insects woodpeckers and dormice, and the buzzing wildflower understory all combine to orchestrate a symphony of life.
Orchards come in all shapes and sizes. The West Country cider apple orchards are a far cry from farmhouse orchards found across the country, and these in turn bear little resemblance to the cobnut plats of Kent or the low-growing Bramley orchards of the Fens. Each, however, is important in its own way for the people who use them, their cultural heritage, their place in the landscape, and the wildlife they support.
What is a habitat inventory?
It is because of these qualities that traditional orchards are a 'Habitat of Principal Importance' so, as with all special habitats, they need to be mapped to enable their protection and restoration.
The inventory was first created by PTES on behalf on NE/Defra between 2008 and 2011, evolving out of our work with endangered saproxylic species - those dependent on deadwood habitats, in particular noble chafer beetles. Although the inventory had been completed, our work with orchards had just begun. We help owners improve the condition of their orchards; planting new trees can make all the difference. We maintain a map of community orchards, a database that records the locations of important collections and rare cultivars, we advocate for orchards under threat, and we play an integral role in the Orchard Network - an umbrella organisation for orchard interests.
Since the original mapping project we have continued to add to the inventory, but our resources to do so are very constrained and the bulk of the data is now out of date. Unlike many habitats, traditional orchards are not fixed in place - new ones are planted, others die off or are removed. There is a lot of new information derived from various other sources, some minor, others significantly larger, that needs to be incorporated to update the national inventory.
How would your funding help?
There are two main steps in creating a habitat inventory such as this. The first is to gather all the existing evidence and data together into a GIS format. The next is to conduct a country-wide, systematic Aerial Photographic Interpretation (API) using existing evidence as a guide; a painstaking detective hunt for England's remaining traditional orchards. It's a time-consuming and intensive process and we need resources to be able to do it.
By combining the current inventory, geographical evidence from other sources, and updated aerial photography, we will be able to add many orchards that were previously overlooked, identify, remove and (importantly) count lost orchards, and add newly planted habitat to the inventory. We need funding for two years for the skilled staff members required for this endeavour.
Nature conservation and restoration
Priority Habitat Inventories are a keystone resource for nature conservation. An orchard’s presence on the inventory provides the evidence required for Biodiversity Net Gain rules to apply, reducing the likelihood of mitigation or compensation being avoided.
Habitat restoration is dependent on a comprehensive map of the habitat and its condition. Detailed, granular information about the location of relicts and vestigial habitat is essential. The integration of a new layer derived from historical maps will greatly improve our knowledge of such sites.
The 25 Year Environmental Plan calls for an ambitious half a million hectares of priority habitat restoration or creation. We have calculated that a representative proportion of this target would require 4,700 hectares of traditional orchard to be created or brought into favourable condition – around 200 hectares per year.
Nature-based solutions for climate change
Planting trees is one of the most effective ways of mitigating climate change. Orchard trees can live for 100 years or more, and when they are allowed to die and decompose naturally, much of the carbon remains locked in the soil, and they are rarely ploughed, adding to the carbon-retention of the land on which they reside.
Connecting people with nature
Orchards are an entirely man-made habitat. Without our intervention they revert to woodland or pasture, so by their nature they need people to interact with them. Opportunities exist in farming and horticulture, but also in the ever-growing area of community orchards and farms. As we locate these, we add them to a community orchard map to help people find sites local to them.
Retrospective provision of greenspace in densely populated areas, areas where more greenery is most in demand, is not readily achievable, but community orchards are proving to be a useful small-scale solution. These popular greenspaces are ideal for connecting communities to nature, to healthy sustainable food, and to wildlife. More than just a park, a community orchard is a 'space' that amply lends itself to a host of activities, from Apple Days and community picnics under the blossom, to gardening clubs, or just a peaceful retreat from the city.
A further way that our project connects people to nature is the ground-truthing element of the inventory. We locate sites using aerial imagery, maps, and other sources of evidence, but the highest level of certainty comes from site managers, and visits by volunteer surveyors. Employing citizen science, we draw on the public to tell us about their own orchards, or to visit a number of sites close to their homes and conduct a simple survey. This produces the highest quality data and generates enough detail for a habitat condition assessment to be made.