Fruit of the Vale – Orchard Projects
In quiet corners of the Severn Vale, lichen-covered apple trees stand as reminders of a time when virtually every farm had a mixed orchard close to the farmhouse. These traditional orchards, with widely spaced fruit and nut trees, provided food for the family and shelter for livestock. Cider apples and perry pears were also grown, while commercial orchards provided fruit for local markets.
Sadly, about 75% of Gloucestershire’s old orchards have been lost in the last fifty years and, with them, many local varieties of fruit. Despite this, orchards remain a distinctive feature of the area and, crucially, they provide an important wildlife habitat, partly because herbicide use is rare.
Neglect is the main threat facing the remaining traditional orchards of the Lower Severn Vale Levels, along with old age, disease, storm damage and land development.
What we did
Our Fruit of the Vale project trained volunteers to survey orchards in the project area. Using the survey format created by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), they recorded key species and assessed the condition of remaining traditional orchards. This gave us an idea of how healthy the remaining orchards were and where they might need a little help. The survey results were shared with PTES and the Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre (BRERC) and will help to inform orchard restoration and conservation.
The next step was to identify five orchards to restore via:
- planting of replacement trees
- restorative pruning of old fruit trees
We also offered training in orchard maintenance.
Only local fruit tree varieties were used, based on the varieties already growing in the orchard (where these could be identified), and on the knowledge of local experts and the information gained from our volunteer orchard survey.
The orchards were generally planted with the larger sizes of trees (standards or half standards), which were traditionally grown. These do not require skilled formative pruning and so are simpler to establish.
Trees were planted at traditional spacings with guards around them to protect them from browsing by livestock and wildlife.
Restorative pruning rejuvenated neglected trees, stimulating strong growth and new fruit-bearing branches, maintaining a balanced shape and reducing the chance of trees being blown over.
Benefits for Biodiversity
Ecologically, the mix of open-grown fruit trees, grassland and hedgerow boundaries or scrub in traditional orchards resembles mini-parklands or woods.
Among the species you can find are:
- mammals, such as dormice and bats
- birds, including woodpeckers, little owls and endangered tree sparrows
- rare insects, particularly the noble chafer
- plants, such as semi-parasitic mistletoe and wildflowers
- lichens and fungi
You can find out more about the biodiversity of traditional orchards from the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust. The Avon Wildlife Trust also has a Species Explorer with information about the species you might find.
Did You Know?
Wassailing is a mid-winter tradition, still practiced in some orchards. People gather to drink mulled cider and toast the trees to bring a good harvest the following year. ‘Wassail’ comes from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’, meaning ‘be healthy’!