Call to protect orchards, the apple of England's eye

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The Independent Online

Nature conservationists have called on the Government to protect Britain's traditional orchards from further destruction, on the grounds that cultivated fruit trees provide a rich habitat for wildlife.

Today is National Apple Day, and the National Trust and Natural England, formerly English Nature, are lobbying for orchards to be included in the country's official action plan to protect biodiversity. They believe their contribution to the preservation of Britain's rare and endangered species of wild animals and plants has long been overlooked.

Since 1950, Britain has lost 57 per cent of its orchards, by the area of land covered, with an estimated 28,000 hectares (70,000 acres) of orchards left standing. Because of their rarity, conservationists want them to be added to the list of national priority habitats, as part of the Government's review of Britain's Biodiversity Action Plan, which is due to be published in November.

Evidence of the importance of traditional orchards in providing habitats for wildlife comes from several lines of research.

One study, carried out by English Nature, counted a total of 1,868 species of wild animals and plants living in just three traditional orchards surveyed in the Wyre Forest of Worcestershire. Some 224 species, 12 per cent of the total, were found living on the dead wood of trees that had not been cleared away. Older trees in the orchards were especially valuable for hole-nesting birds such as woodpeckers and redstarts.

Researchers in Germany also found that mature orchards where older trees were allowed to stand were often better habitats than deciduous woodland. Orchards were particularly good for endangered species such as the lesser spotted woodpecker, great crested newt, spotted flycatcher and pipistrelle bat.

"Orchards are renowned for their fruit but they have been overlooked in terms of their potential for supporting wildlife," said Lucy Cordrey, a nature conservationist with the National Trust. "They can be home to some very old trees that can live for up to 300 years, which provides continuity in the landscape for the insects and other invertebrates that live on them," Ms Cordrey said. Many old orchards have been uprooted to make way for building developments. Including orchards in the Biodiversity Action Plan would give them stronger protection in terms of planning regulations, she added.

The National Trust has more than 100 traditional orchards in its care and the charity is anxious to restore their status as havens for the country's endemic wildlife.

Many insects such as bees and hoverflies feed on the nectar and pollen sources found in both the orchard canopy and orchard floor, whilemore secretive insects live and feed amongst the dead wood of the older fruit trees, said David Bullock, head of Nature Conservation.

"Traditional orchards and their associated meadows, hedges, walls, ponds and streams provide a wonderful network of habitats within the wider landscape for all sorts of common and rare wildlife," Mr Bullock said. "There is a need for a formal recognition from all government agencies that traditional orchards matter, and we hope that a UK Biodiversity Action Plan will be set up to make them a priority habitat, where a wide range of wildlife flourishes," he added.

The National Trust said that encouraging the conservation of traditional orchards helps to guarantee the survival of a wide range of trees and fruit varieties that are particular to each region of the country - and supports the growing popularity of locally-produced food.

Nevertheless, home-grown fruit has to compete against cheaper imports. In 2004, Britain imported 72 per cent of its apples, a 13 per cent increase in 10 years.

Environmental campaigners point out that importing apples is responsible for pollution generated by transporting fruit around the world.

Conservation bearing fruit

* Brockhampton Estate, Worcestershire

Home of rare weevil, Ixpion varigatum. Local schoolchildren will take part in project to preserve mistletoe.

* Cotehele, Cornwall

A walled garden with 30 varieties of apple tree. Aim is to preserve fruit-growing heritage of the area.

* Crom Estate, Northern Ireland

Lies within one of the longest walled gardens in Ireland. Harbours rare roosting bats.

* Killerton, Devon

Managed for benefit of wildlife but also has annual harvests of apples for cider, and honey from bee hives.

* Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion

Rich in wildlife and home to roosting bats. Some of its apple varieties have yet to be identified.

* Lyveden New Bield, Northhamptonshire

Project aims to restore orchard's Elizabethan grandeur, when there were 300 varieties of fruit tree.