Thursday, July 30, 2009

Visiting other traditional orchards

Every week or so I plan to visit another local old orchard to get a feel for the diversity of fruit varieties, the biodiversity, and the distribution, age and condition of traditional orchards in this area. Each new orchard I visit will be featured in a post on the blog.

Today I briefly checked out a magnificent family orchard just over the border in Warwickshire, close to Shipston-on-Stour. With more than 200 trees over 4 acres there was much to take in (a Roman apple variety, little owls, giant perry pears..) - indeed so much that I have arranged to go back and have a longer look. For the time being these photos are just a little taster ...


Isn't that fantastic? This perry pear tree would make many an oak cower in shame. It reminds me of one of the trees at Awnells Farm in Herefordshire.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inspecting a woodpecker hole

Can you spot the woodpecker hole?

I got up onto a friends shoulders to take this photo right into the hole. It was probably made by a greater spotted woodpecker or a green woodpecker which are both quite common in Britain, but always fairly spectacular to see. You can just see where it opens onto a rotten cavity above. This is an ideal bat roost. I knew about this hole in 2008 but the feathers around the rim indicate it was used this year for nesting, possibly by a smaller bird like a blue tit.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Strimming and scything for the National Trust visit

A compact team of three with various tools (some modern, some archaic) on Monday afternoon. We cut a path through the badlands of the lower orchard in preparation for the National Trust's visit next week. Hot but satisfying work followed by a well earned pub pint.

(from right) Will and Freddie, Gloucestershire locals and noble volunteers.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A bat survey in the Charingworth orchards

This morning I went out into the orchards with my neighbour Andy (pictured above) to survey potential bat roosts. Andy is an ecological consultant and bat enthusiast and has an endoscope for looking into cavities. I had previously located 6 likely looking cavities where there were openings into upwards slanting internal spaces so we went and checked them out...

There are seventeen species of bat in the UK, and 3/4 of these can use trees as roosting sites, each with their own different preferences. They generally prefer roosts that are dark, fairly well insulated, dry, quite humid and away from potential predators such as rats. Finding summer tree roosts is very difficult in places like Gloucestershire due to the number of trees and the fact that buildings often provide more suitable sites. Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) is the commonest British bat and the most likely species for the orchard to have as a resident.

Andy using the endoscope to inspect a cavity in the 1920's orchard. Promising potential roosts had very little cobwebs across the entrance or inside as the presence of these is both a deterrent to bats and indicates that the hole hasn't had any animal traffic passing through. Droppings are another giveaway. Sadly we did not find any bats in the trees, but there is great potential for some of the hollow limbs to be used either infrequently by solitary males or for hibernation in the winter. Another survey has been scheduled!

Three examples of the many (9+) woodpecker holes in the orchards. These are also often ideal bat roosts. Noctule bats (Nyctalus noctula) and Daubenton's (Myotis daubentonii) have been known to roost communally in the rot holes that form above old woodpecker nests. Cobwebs in several of the ones we inspected suggested no-one was currently using them.

Friday, July 24, 2009

What's there? What's to be done? A management plan emerges...

This is a satellite photo of the 1940's orchard that I have modified to show the positions and state of the trees more clearly. The numbering is completely arbitrary, but you can see there are 40 standard trees and three rows of bush-stock trees (in the centre). There are also several gaps and two standing dead trees, represented by stars. Yellow is for decrepit trees that have either tipped over, been felled to the base and are resprouting, or have split trunks from excessive regrowth weight. Blue is for the fourteen trees I pruned over this last winter. Tree 40 is haunted.

The larger 1920's orchard with 52 half-standard trees. This orchard is in better condition with only three decrepit trees (9 has a split trunk; 19 is standing dead as well as the un-numbered standing dead tree marked by a star). However, last winter I did not prune any of the trees here. I intend to focus on this older orchard with the grant money over the next two years and hopefully get all 50 remaining trees into good shape. Any gaps will hopefully be replanted too.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The value of dead wood in orchards

One of the most interesting aspects of the two orchards is the abundance of standing and fallen dead wood- a nationally scarce habitat important for many rare insects, especially beetles. For example there are apparently around 700 species of saproxylic beetle found in mainland Britain. It will be exciting to see what turns up...

Piles of old prunings at the base of many trees combined with cavities provide a range of rotting wood habitats.

The somewhat tragic end to a vast apple tree's life in the 1940s orchard. Its all about allowing these fallen giants to decay gracefully.

Whole standing-dead trees. There are two of these in the 1940s orchard (another can be just seen behind the one in the foreground of this photo). These are particularly valuable as the wood rots from the inside out, providing a range of stages of decomposition. The rotting of this wood is facilitated by fungi and various micro-organisms that convert the wood into substances that can be digested by a range of insect species, since very few insects can actually digest dead woody tissues directly.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Strimming in the 1940s orchard

Did a spot of strimming yeasterday. Nice contrast between the head-height weeds and my newly cleared patch. Horseflies very bad this year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rick Stein and the BBC in the Charingworth orchards

An extract from an episode of Rick Stein's 'Food Heroes' series for the BBC. The slope he drives down is along the highest boundary of the 1940s Bramley orchard. This was filmed a few years ago when the orchards were still being managed commercially. The trees Margaret and Rick are picking from are the modern 'bush' style, with smaller semi-dwarfing root-stocks than the standard trees found in traditional orchards. This allows for picking and pruning without ladders, and as a result they are much more economical and are thus favoured by most commercial fruit producers. There are three rows of these trees in the centre of this orchard, flanked on both sides by much older, standard trees. However, apple trees on semi-dwarfing rootstocks are far less valuable for wildlife because they will never develop into the big old trees that have an abundance of valuable 'veteran tree' features such as rot holes and standing dead wood.

We can see in a snapshot some of the problems associated with traditional orchard conservation; primarily an active tension between the trend towards intensive management of younger, smaller trees for economically viable production and the long time periods and more extensive management that allows the orchard-woodpasture habitat to develop and become home to so many species.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rot holes and cavities - a survey

For several days during November 2008 I surveyed every standard and half-standard apple tree to get an idea of the condition of the orchards. I measured the trunk height and circumference of the trees. I also counted and photographed each 'rot hole', 'cavity' and dead limb, since it is these veteran tree features that account for much of the habitat value in traditional orchards.

An example of a 'rot hole'. Great habitat for saproxylic invertebrates including the Noble Chafer, Gnorimus nobilis (a UK BAP species) and many species of fungi . And snails.

An example of what I would call a 'cavity'. It is more of an internal space than a 'rot hole' and often forms where a hollow limb or trunk is accessible through a hole in the bark. Good habitat for a range of cavity nesting birds and bats. You can see some fungal hyphae hanging down inside this cavity- it is in one of the oldest trees and has an entirely hollow trunk, along with several hollow limbs.

Out of a total of 34 healthy and 8 decrepit trees in the 1940s orchard, I found a total of 77 rot holes and cavities (thumbnails above). The average trunk circumference was 160 cm, measured below the lowest branch, illustrating the considerable size of trees in this orchard.

Out of a total of 50 healthy and 3 decrepit trees in the 1920s orchard I found a total of 164 rot holes and cavities. The average circumference was smaller though, at 143 cm. I think the reason this orchard has a greater density of ancient tree features than the one planted in the 1940s is due to the trees being older on average, as well as perhaps having been pruned more intensively being half-standard trees. More veteran tree features = more unusual habitat.

A resident of tree 28, 1920s orchard.

The largest apple tree in Charingworth

Noble tree 35 from the Bramley orchard planted in the 1940s.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bramley apple harvest

My good friend Freddie with some of last October's crop. He pioneered the single stick apple harvesting technique.

A sprinkling of snow in the lower orchard

A sprinkling of snow in the 1940s Bramley orchard in February. Two of the largest trees of all can be seen in the foreground. It took me three days to prune the tree nearest the camera- tree 35, and a personal favorite. It has huge internal cavities and I think there may be potential for a bat roost in one of the hollow limbs. In twenty years time these trees may well approach the size of some of the giant trees in Wisbech

December 2008 - February 2009: pruning

I concentrated all my pruning efforts on the smaller 1940s orchard since I judged these trees to be more in need of a trim. Over 25 days I managed to prune 13 trees, with a bit of help along the way. Hugely therapeutic to be up a ladder on a crisp winter's morning, surrounded by cackling fieldfare and redwing, releasing a gnarled tree from its beard of shoots.

In February 2009 I managed to rope in a couple of friends for a weekends pruning, Tommy and Harry. I had been working alone so it was great to have some help from two strapping lads. We finished a tree each, 'prunbelievable'.

From left: pruners Harry Guinness, myself and Tommy Adeane.

Harry up tree 17.

Tree 35 pre-prune.

Tree 35 pruned.

Tree 26 pre-prune. Note how congested the crown is after 6 years of growth.

Tree 26 pruned. I took a lot of wood off this tree, especially at the ends of branches where the spider-like shape of the tree was starting to grow out.

Tree 5 pre-prune.

Tree 5 post-prune. I removed the water shoots and thinned out the fruiting branches. The aim was to increase air circulation and light reaching the crown and reduce the strain on the main limbs.

Tree 5 regrowth (July 2009). Notice how already the water shoots have regrown considerably. However if pruning can be done each year then only very thin shoots are being removed so several trees can be pruned in one day. Since 2nd year buds are where fruits form, this type of pruning concentrates all the fruit on the more accessible outer branches.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

This is one of the original Bramley apple trees from the orchard on Goose Hill. It is about 90 years old. The trunk and several limbs are completely hollow. Old pruning debris provides valuable habitat at the base. 'Water shoots' can be seen sprouting up from the main branches; usually removed every winter, these have been unpruned for around 6 years.

A panoramic view from above the larger orchard on Goose Hill, facing towards Chipping Campden.

October 2008 - February 2009

I first started to notice that the orchards were no longer being farmed during the summer of 2008. The grass had not been cut for several years and no pruning had been undertaken. I went for a coffee with the farmers to find out more. It transpired that they had recently retired and no longer farmed any of their land, with the arable and pasture leased out and the orchards left to their own devices. Old apple trees with a long history of yearly pruning become unable to tolerate a long break in maintenance since the weight in wood from several years growth can break branches and even split trunks. It is an agricultural environment that needs to be maintained through constant management, especially with the vigorous Bramley variety. I decided that if I didn't try and save the orchards, there was a good chance they would be lost.

An introduction to the Charingworth orchards

This bramley apple orchard has 34 older full stock trees planted from 1940 onwards and three rows of smaller bush stock trees favoured by modern commercial growers. There is much standing dead wood on the site (including 2 full standing trees), an old hedgerow with dead elms and 2 ponds on land bordering the orchard.

This orchard has 52 half stock trees dating from 1920 onwards, all bramley as well. The trees harbour a huge diversity and abundance of rot holes and cavities.
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