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.

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