Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Heavy machinary in the Charingworth orchards

Last Wednesday my neighbour John Langston brought his tractor to the orchards to help me do some grass mowing. It was such a beast that we couldn't take it between the trees but we managed to cut a few more open areas that were beginning to succeed to scrub. Flailing can be a destructive process, but it is probably the best way of dealing with large areas of really rough grass and brambles. For that afternoon at least, the crunching sound of the flail carried by the wind really was the sound of progress!

The lowest of these three 'before and after' shots shows the 'meadow area' at the back of the lower (1940s) orchard. It has always had a bad dock infestation that has made farming this patch impractical. However, I believe that chemical fertilizers have not been heavily used here and as a result there are already patches of Birdsfoot Trefoil and Meadow Vetchling that flourish in summer. Flailing will hopefully encourage these and prevent blackthorn, buddleia and poplar saplings from becoming dominant. I plan to seed some areas where the tractor has exposed soil with a wildflower mix and see whether anything establishes.

Here is a clearing in the 1920s orchard that we also flailed. I am planning to do some replanting in this area before Christmas. I am currently tempted by the idea of a couple of Blenheim Orange (likes clay) and an Orleans Reinette (fantastic eater, apparently) and perhaps some bittersweet varieites for cider. They have to be on M25 rootstocks though as I want them to grow BIG!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Checking the barn owl box in the lower orchard at Charingworth

On Tuesday my friend Freddie and I took a ladder into the lower orchard to retrieve a pulley from up in a tree. We also took the opportunity to have a peek into one of the two barn owl boxes we erected in the orchards one month ago. The photo on the right shows why its good to check the boxes when it's not the breeding season. I removed that pile of ivy (hat for scale) that had been crammed into the box by a wood pigeon or dove. Barn owls are unlikely to use a box that has been filled with debris and so a respectful amount of intervention is necessary to give them a hand.

Sunglasses were appropriate (a rarity for November!) as a precaution against the slim chance of us disturbing a grumpy tawny owl. Neither of us wished for the fate of Eric Hosking, 'the most celebrated British wildlife photographer of the 20th century' (Birds Britannica), who lost an eye when scratched by a territorial tawny he was photographing. He got a fantastic photo of the culprit for his pains though.

I also discovered that one of my neighbours, Louise, is well on top of the agenda as she has a fantastic box she erected two years ago. It has been checked and so far, no signs of owls. Having a range of potential nesting sites gives the birds some choice and flexibility, hopefully increasing the stability of any population that establishes locally.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

'Wild' honey bees in the lower orchard at Charingworth

Today I was in the 1940s orchard clearing brambles away from the fearsomely shrouded branches of tree 40. I found a surprisingly active colony of honey bees in the south facing base of one of the trees nearby. Honey bees are not actually native to Britain. There are 'feral' populations of the European honey bee, a domesticated form of the bee Apis mellifera that originated in eastern tropical Africa. Beekeepers and orchards have a long history of symbiosis, with the beehives traditionally brought into the orchard in late spring for the blossom. This way the pollination of the blossom is maximised, helping ensure a good apple crop for the farmer and lots of nectar for the bees to make honey with.

I remember that the cavity had had unoccupied combs in it last winter and has clearly been repossessed by the bees. The photo on the left shows this comb in November 2008, with the one on the right taken today. Honey bees are not doing well in Britain currently. They are suffering from a range of new diseases, including the parasitic varroa mite that has spread viruses throughout wild and captive bee colonies.

The press often deal with these issues rather clumsily, confusing the causes of the decline in feral honey bee populations with those of the truly native bumblebee (23 species) and solitary bee (~250 species). The basic reason for the decline in most of our true native bee species has little to do with diseases- agricultural intensification has removed the majority of our species-rich grasslands and thus there are no longer enough nectar-rich plants to support bumblebee colonies and solitary bees (this photo shows a unimproved lowland flood meadow near Bledington, with abundant clover and birdsfoot trefoil). A lack of appropriate nest site habitats is also probably a factor limiting some bumblebee and solitary bee species. I went on a bumblebee walk on Salisbury Plain in August and met Damian who is interested in all these issues and has his own charity dedicated to helping bees.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Betty Daffurn's orchard legacy at Kemerton

© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The other day I went on a pilgrimage to Daffurn's community orchard in Kemerton. This is the cottage Betty lived in for 94 years. It was the first true community orchard I have visited and looked very carefully maintained. The area has a fantastically motivated and established Conservation Trust that owns several wildlife sites and oversees the management of some 1,280 acres of land around Bredon Hill. The orchard restoration work carried out by the Kemerton Conservation Trust recently received a significant amount of funding from the National Trust. If only all British villages were as well endowed with enlightened perspectives on farming and wildlife.

I think they may have snowdrops, wild daffodils(?) and bluebells in the orchard. To get a true feeling for any community orchard I think you need to meet some of the workers that maintain it. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time to prearrange such a visit, but the orchard in itself is very interesting as wildlife sanctuary and piece of local history. I look forward to them releasing the species lists for the orchard from the directory of 45,000 records for the local area!

No one has ever been killed by a sheep. They were doing a good job of keeping the sward down when I visited, which looked distinctly unimproved and herb-rich.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Conderton, Worcestershire: an orchard of national importance?

Today I braved some fairly angry rain storms to visit a big pear orchard in Conderton (near Tewksbury), Worcestershire. At several hectares in size, several hundered trees and over a century old, there's an awful lot to try and condense into a few photos. It is certainly one of the best orchards I have yet visited and perfectly illustrates the similarity of old traditional orchards to woodland pasture. Indeed, because of it's size and scale I don't expect there are many in the whole county to rival it, especially in terms of habitat diversity and potential for biodiversity. It is begging out for a full species inventory to be undertaken.

That hole was perfect for a Little owl and they love orchards like this one. This is also one of the first orchards I have documented that have had abundant mistletoe (Viscum album) in them. It just doesn't seem to be as common around Charingworth. Misletoe is interesting because it acts like a minature ecosystem supporting six invertebrate species that entirely rely on it.

One of these mistletoe-dependent species is the Mistletoe Marble moth, Celypha woodiana, a UKBAP species. You can detect it by looking for characterisitic damage done by the leaf-mining larvae to the leaves (but alas I did not know this until now and so did not check for it!). The other five species dependent on mistletoe are the weevil Ixapion variegatum (first recorded as a new British species in a Herefordshire orchard in 2000) and four ‘true bugs’ (belonging to the Order Hemiptera): the capsid bug Pinalitus visciola, the predatory Anthocoris visci, the Jumping Plant Louse Psylla visci, and Hypseloecus visci (discovered as recently as 2003 in Somerset).

How about that for a wildlife woodpile? An incredible spread. Fortunately there are also many dead trees that have been left standing as well. The orchard has an incredible range and volume of dead wood; standing, shaded, large logs, full fallen trees and even logs submerged in water. This provides much of the substrate for fungal and microbial decomposition, which is in turn exploited by a whole suite of insects that provide food for all the larger animals.

A lesser stag beetle I found underneath one of the large pear logs pictured.

Orchards often contain other structural features of the landscape preserved around or within them. This one had several very large old ash pollards (and one of field maple). These could house larger raptors and owls and add a different dimension of habitat complexity.

Only whole-dead trees like this provide enough appropriately decomposed wood to support the development of large beetles like the stag beetle, and some species of longhorn beetle and click beetle whose larvae can take seven years to develop.

I'm certainly no lichenologist, but every tree seemed to have a quite varied lichen community and traditional orchards like this are excellent lichen habitats with old trees and low chemical inputs.

What a fantastic orchard landscape that is. I'm betting on Blenheim Orange for the gnarly gentleman in the foreground. It seems to be a real bird haven too, for even though I went without any binoculars, I immediately saw two green woodpeckers take off with their characteristically undulating flight. I spotted many yellow meadow ant hills that they love to feed in. There were also clouds of fieldfare that were pestered by a sharking sparrowhawk at one point. I must make a concerted effort to contact the Overbury Estate and learn more about this special place.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tracking down traditional orchards online

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A guy I work with, Richard, has tipped me off about a big pear orchard that he looks out into from his house in Conderton, Worcestershire. In the photo I think it's almost certainly the field at the back of the village and it looks very promising. I tracked this photo down on Geograph, a really handy website I often use to search for interesting orchards.

This image is from the latest Google Earth program. There looks to be well over 100 trees here, and most look mature. If so it could be the biggest pear orchard I've ever visited. I will keep you updated. How exciting!

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