Natural England has reported that some 50% of our traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950s; no doubt having fallen victim to intensive agri-business and our seemingly endless need for new developments, roads and sprawling retail parks. Like wetlands and wildflower meadows, orchards have been added to the list of priority habitats which need protection, because of their scarcity and high levels of natural biodiversity.
Orchards also display a rich and varied heritage throughout the country, with as many as 2,500 varieties of apple tree alone across the UK. They are also appreciated for their inherent and aesthetic value. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the scent of cherry blossom? Who isn’t moved by the sight of venerable boughs brought low by ripe succulent fruits in the autumn mist?
As our contribution towards the protection and restoration of this important component of our managed countryside, we are planning to establish an orchard at the Welsh Wildlife Centre. We will select from a range of traditional and local varieties, and intend planting apple, crab apple, pear, plum, cherry, damson and quince trees. One variety of apple which we have chosen, the Pig Aderyn, has strong cultural links with the historic monks of St Dogmael’s Abbey (just a few miles from the Centre), where it is still to be found growing today.
When planning an orchard, tree varieties must be carefully selected. This is to ensure there is sufficient planted from each pollination group to result in a worthwhile crop. In the main, orchard trees require pollination from a different variety of the same fruit, and both varieties must flower at the same time of the year.
We will be planting maidens, or 1 year old trees. These have a much better chance of growing into healthy mature trees than transplanted older trees. Each maiden will be planted in previously prepared soil 8 metres apart, to allow for growth, and a layer of mulch will be applied to inhibit weeds. Each will be protected with a cane and rabbit guard, and fertilised with nothing more than a handful of traditional bone-meal. This should give them a good start!
Planting such young trees means that, in the manner of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, we will need to show stoical patience before our plans reach maturity and any worthwhile harvest can be gathered. In time it is intended that the orchard’s produce will be used by our skilled café staff to alchemize their delicious creations. Any excess will be available to purchase as fruit and preserves in our shop. Some fruit (but not too much I hope) will be left for the birds. In time the maturing orchard should become a wonderful asset for both wildlife and the Wildlife Centre.