Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grass strimming for biodiversity in the 1920s orchard

Last month I hired this 'DR mower' to make a start at cutting the grass in the 1920s orchard while the ground was still hard. As you can see, five years of growth has left it looking pretty tropical! This 'rank' vegetation is really good for small mammals (and the things that feed on them) and provides cover for all the birds that nest in the trees. However it is largely made up of coarse grasses such as Cocksfoot, False Oat Grass, Yorkshire Fog and Perrenial Rye grass that outcompete most wildflowers and thus limit nectar supplies for insects. Tall vegetation can limit air movement around the trees and this is detrimental for the development of fruit and can promote fungal infections in the tree.

When the orchards were under commercial use the grass swards were fertilized quite regularly. This has had a couple of unfortunate consequences for my restoration.

1) Coarse grasses and nutrient-loving plants (e.g. nettles, hogweed, docks, creeping thistle, cow parsley) have come to dominate preventing less competitive wildflowers from co-existing.
2) Without consistent management the orchards quickly become overgrown.

Simply cutting the grass is no long-term solution as the nutrient status of the soil remains unchanged. To re-establish wildflowers the soil muct be stripped of nutrients either by removing the cut material and not letting it rot down (= hard work), or grazing with sheep/cows/geese (=need fencing, wire to protect trees, animals..!). I am yet to find the best solution.

This photo sums up what I want to achieve with this strimming. The maximum biodiversity potential for the orchard will incorporate the greatest range of diffferent habitats. Areas of long grass will be left for small mammals (and forage for birds of prey), insect overwintering sites and bird cover. Areas of short grass will imporve the health of the fruit and trees, provide opportunity for less vigorous plant species and allow sun to warm standing dead wood and aid insect larval development.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A golden day

Can you belive that I took this photo last week? Amazing Autumn weather. Also, I found this nice website set up be a guy called Neil Phillips. Some excellent photos of more modern orchard setups and older ones. He's also got an interesting project underway recently too which should be interesting to follow...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Owl feathers

Three barn owl feathers I found in a roosting site inside a disused sheep shelter near my house. Barn owls have very soft feathers for flying silently and are vulnerable if they get too wet. They use a few familiar spots to retreat to if caught in the rain on a hunting trip. The last feather in the photo I found in our unused stable block- I think it may be from a tawny owl since I once disturbed one in there during the day.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wonderful dead wood for wildlife

I made this woodpile today out of old plum tree wood. It is tailored to suit the Noble Chafer (Gnorimus nobilis) with a large surface area facing south to ensure the wood is warmed as much as possible by the sun, thus aiding the development of the larvae (it should be good for all sort of other insects as well). Really looking forward seeing the first adult beetle hopefully next summer.

There are two fully dead apple trees located in clearings within the 1920s orchard, this being one of them. They are fantastic habitat for insects and I hope to leave them untouched during the restoration. There are not enough examples of large exposed dead trees within the British countryside and as a result many specialist creatures have suffered.

I think this is a type of wasp, but any further than that I don't know. It was on one of the dead trees in the upper orchard.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

BBC's 'Autumnwatch' undersells the wildlife value of traditional orchards

This year's series of 'Autumnwatch' started recently on BBC 2. Included within the first show was a trip to the orchards associated with Westons cider in Herefordshire to have a look for some of the wildlife associated with orchards. They set themselves a few conditions for selecting an appropriate site: 'The chosen location had to be a working orchard and there had to be an abundance of wildlife'.

A photo of a commercial cider orchard at Westons, Much Marcle. (This one is younger than the ones where the bulk of the filming was done but it gives you an idea of how different commercial cider orchards are to your typical traditional orchard.)

Surely the first proviso should have been to film somewhere that most resembles the orchard that the largest number of British citizens are likely to encounter? I felt that Westons extensive orchards were inappropriate on two counts. 1) They are managed intensively and are largely not traditional orchards. In the footage you can see herbicide strips, mown grass and semi-dwarfing trees that do not provide habitat for many of the more interesting or rare orchard species. If you want to film orchard wildlife, why choose an orchard that is unlikely to have many species? 2) The majority of British orchards are not like that. They are small, often not currently in use, extensively managed through grazing and have much older, larger trees. Because of this they are much richer habitats. They are also much more threatened and far less appreciated (and thus could really do with good PR from the BBC!)

Autumnwatch is aimed at engaging the largest possible audience with wildlife in Britain- there is certainly an important place for a program like this. Why try to engage people in the widlife value of orchards with animals that can be found in the average London park or back-garden though? The list: rabbit, grey squirrel, wood mouse, tawny owl, greater spotted woodpecker seems less than inspiring. Would it not be more engaging to spend a little more time filming and track down orchard specialists like lesser spotted woodpecker, barn owl, little owl, noble chafer, stag beetle or fieldfare?

For example, Westons buy organic cider apples from a fantastic heritage cider orchard (and nature reserve) at Tidnor Wood. Here they have older trees, mistletoe and surely more of interest for the Autumnwatch team. Or virtually any other old farmhouse orchard. It was a very disappointing piece of television that makes me feel a little less hopeful for the future of traditional orchards in Britain, but a little more steely too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Second barn owl box installed at Charingworth

The second barn owl box has now been installed about six metres up in a poplar tree overlooking the lower (1940s) orchard at Charingworth. Percy and Herbie can only stare up and dream of having such luxury accommodation. It took three evenings to get it done after a few complications...

The 'improved' design sporting a few modifications undertaken by my dad under the advice from the Barn Owl Trust website: 1) roofing felt for extra waterproofing; 2) a baton-to-baton attachment for increased strength (over the previous single bolt and keyhole attachment); 3) a small rim around the balcony to prevent young chicks falling off so easily. Should be interesting to compare the success of this box with the unmodified one in the other orchard...

Without the impressive upper body strength of my friend Angus, a new way of installing the box had to be thought up. Ideally you need three people and a long ladder. The basic method was:

1) attach a pulley into the tree above the height you want the box at, i.e. as high as feasibly possible,
2) attach a baton (with pre-drilled holes for bolts) horizontally (spirit level) onto tree at desired height,
3) build a net of rope (see photo above) and hoist the box up,
4) marry up the corresponding baton on back of box to the attached baton on tree, using pulley to hold the bulk of the weight of the box,
5) secure with bolts through both sets of holes, and
6) tea.

As you can see from the quality of this photo its probably best to give yourself lots of time to do this. We flirted dangerously with the twilight hours but it feels amazing to have got another box up.

The view from the box into the 1940s orchard. I had to do a fair amount of trimming to ensure the box entrance had a clean flightpath in. This is really important though- barn owls are very unlikely to use a box that they can't easily fly into because of obstructing branches.

I was also fantastically lucky yesterday. This is the ash pollard we have been keeping an eye on since I found pellets and feathers inside it. On a dog walk I decided to have another look up inside it and I saw a barn owl perched right at the top up against one of the hollow sides! I will give it some distance now as I don't want to disturb it. It doesn't look like there is enough of a platform in the tree for a pair of birds to breed in there so maybe it's only using this tree as a roost. Good news though.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An orchard from the 1890s at Girton College, Cambridge

I was in Cambridge today and headed up to Girton College on the bus to check out their orchards. The head gardener, Mr Robert Bramley helpfully filled me in on what is known of the Old Orchard and its history and upkeep. Planted in the 1890s to provide a supply of fruit for the College's kitchens, it has plum, pear, apple and cobnut trees with over thirty varieties. Its really beautiful- many of the original trees remain in good condition and the area is a haven for wildlife (including lichens apparently). The visit provided an invigorating contrast to the bland planting schemes and quick turnover borders that Cambridge Colleges can be tempted by in their courts.

Can you spot the treecreeper?

This tree in the foreground is a fine example of a Blenheim Orange. Note the characteristically gnarly bark that is reminiscent of some of those veteran trees from Mount Pleasant, Warwickshire. This variety should like the heavy clay in Charingworth.

Girton College has not been very pro-orchard in recent years. A quite extensive orchard was planted in 1948 as an alternative fruit source to the Old Orchard. Recently it was removed to allow for a 're-organisation' of their sports pitches. My friend Lester was at Girton at the time and signed a petition to try and stop this, but to no avail. I think the trees were all only semi-dwarfing and so its some consolation to think it wasn't a majestic orchard of standards. Fortunately the Old Orchard at Girton is rather more respected but it's frightening how little protection these places have currently have under British law.

The area highlighted in blue was the 1948 orchard circa 2006. Now it's a rugby pitch. Ouch.

I also met Sir David Attenborough who was in Borders for a book signing to promote his new book 'Life Stories'. I couldn't resist giving the Charingworth Orchard Trust a little plug and he said: 'Ancient orchards are very precious places'. Here here! I got really star-struck and nearly wandered out without paying for my book.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A giant 'Green Horse' spotted near Broadway

Many thanks to Karen and Mark for sending me this photo of another giant perry pear tree near Broadway, Worcestershire. (They think it's the variety 'Green Horse', hence my rather lame bit of wordplay!) They are the craftsmen behind Rockingham Forest Cider and have an excellent blog too which has a good bit of detail on the process of making perry, that softly sophisticted English drink.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Perry pears in Bledington, Gloucestershire

Next to an old farm by the King's Head Inn, Bledington is this superb perry pear orchard. It has twelve trees, all of different varieties and all well over 100 years old. I expect it is particularly beautiful when the blossom is out so we may have to pencil in a revisit for early next year...

Apparently, 'You plant pears for your heirs'. Not sure about my heirs just yet, but I like the idea of investing in such a long lived fruit tree. I really want to get a few planted at Charingworth but I need to track down somewhere that supplies them and see if I can get any varieties unique to the Cotswolds. (Then heirs?)

All twelve trees are different. I expect this is quite usual for old farm orchards, where having a lot of different varieties to choose from was more useful than just one or two. Perhaps having a range of fruit helps with making perry too. Unfortunately I am a complete beginner with perry pears but it would be great to take along an expert and get these identified. Must learn more!

This tree was particularly impressive, with its huge twisted trunk an ideal habitat for all kinds of creatures.

This is the same tree as the previous picture, with me sitting for scale. I think it may be the biggest pear tree I have encountered so far, even larger than the beauty at Mount Pleasant near Shipston-on-Stour. I wonder if anyone out there knows of a bigger one?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cleeve Prior cider weekend

My good friend (and boss) Jez is the man behind Prior's Tipple, a cider that uses fruit from old orchards in the village of Cleeve Prior, Worcestershire (see 15/8/09 post). Each year he hosts a cider making weekend where friends from across the country get together to pick and process fruit, camp amongst the trees and drink cider. The old orchards of Cleeve Prior are being used, and because of this they are admired, maintained and play an important role in reconnecting people with the natural world. Old orchards that have a use stand a far better chance of surviving.

There are several orchards in the village, and on the Saturday thirty of us moved between about five different sites collecting fruit. Prior's Tipple is made from a 'geographical blend' of fruit and thus although there is no exact recipe, the same trees are harvested from each year ensuring that a broadly consistent mix of apples goes into the press. You don't want the juice to be too sweet since it is often the sourer flavours that provide levels of complexity in the cider.

We picked three tonnes of fruit from this orchard. It had some fairly ancient trees in it, including a couple of perry pears like the one in the foreground here. Interestingly this one had really sweet fruit whereas I expected all perry pears to be quite bitter to taste.

You can't really shake a big tree from the ground, but climbing fruit trees is often sketchy. Everyone was in quiet agreement about one thing though- knocking the fruit down is far more fun than picking it up again off the floor!

A beautiful apple that Jez calls the 'still life' apple. Not sure about the real variety but this shouldn't be impossible to find out considering how unusual it is.

Many hands making light work of a haul of fruit the weight of which almost became scary. That's about a tonne in the van there.

The business end of proceedings; apples are 1) washed, 2) roughly chopped, 3) scatted into pulp, 4) organised into 'cheeses' and 5) pressed. The juice is filtered and collected in large tanks to begin fermentation.

I was really impressed by the work of the Cleeve Prior Heritage Trust. They got the villagers to club together and raised thousands of pounds to buy land in the village to save it from development or misuse. This is a photo of the Cleeve Prior Community Orchard and Parish Ponds, a nature reserve with old plum and apple trees and several fantastic ponds. It is a wildlife haven, with unimproved grassland that apparently has fantastic wildflowers in the summer (including pyramidal orchids). The ponds are thankfully free of fish and gaps in the orchard have been replanted with cider apple trees that we harvested, a diversification that keeps the orchards productive.

In a cavity in one of the old plum trees I found the frass of the Noble Chafer (Gnorimus nobilis)! Unmistakable lozenge shaped droppings of a very rare beetle. (I think these orchards have already been fully surveyed so sadly no glory to be claimed for that spot.)

This was in another orchard, mainly plum again. Jez provided many of the maiden cider-apple trees that have been used to replant the gaps. There were also a few much older standard apple trees such as the one pictured. We saw a Little owl flying across the grass and there were huge ant hills along the fenced edge.

Oh apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear,
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year.

To grow well and to bear well,
And so merrily let us be,
Let every man lift up his glass
And a health to the old apple tree,
Brave boys, and a health to the old apple tree.

(Traditional English wassailing song.)
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