Taking a bird’s eye view of England’s traditional orchards has enabled conservationists to put one of the most important wildlife habitats back on the map

Logo: PTES

A five year research project by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) has used aerial photographs to produce a unique inventory of England’s traditional orchards a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Habitat. The study funded by Natural England, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and PTES, has for the first time established the location, condition, age, boundaries and management status of dwindling traditional orchards to support the Habitat Action Plan (HAP) and provides a much-needed baseline of data from which to focus future conservation action.

The traditional orchard habitat has been identified as having gre eat biodiversity value, but until now information about the amount of traditional orchard habitat remaining in England has been out-dated and incomplete. Aerial photography provides researchers with a unique perspective; orchards can often be spotted by their planting patterns, as the trees tend to be growing in equally spaced lines. Conservationists set about scouring 3.5 million hectares of the English countryside and this painstaking investigation has located 35,378 traditional orchards across 51 counties, equating to 16,990 hectares of habitat.

The project has involved over 600 local volunteers who, with training from PTES have helped to survey a proportion (19%) of the orchards on the ground, recording the species, age and condition of the fruit trees – and contributing some 563 volunteer days

Over 35,000 traditional orchards have been identified in England (Chris Richards)
Over 35,000 traditional orchards have been identified in England (Chris Richards)

to the project - the equivalent of over 18 months of work.

The fieldwork analysis reveals that overall only 9% of England’s traditional orchards are in excellent condition, while 46% are in good condition and 45% are in poor condition.

Hundreds of volunteers have helped with the  orchard inventory (PTES)
Hundreds of volunteers have helped with the orchard inventory (PTES)

Even more useful in terms of long-term stewardship, is that this report also provides a picture of the state of English orchards at the county level - allowing comparisons of the condition of traditional orchards to be made between any of the 51 counties included in the research. The study has also attempted to gather information from orchard owners throughout the country resulting in the collection of hundreds of orchard owner questionnaires providing valuable insights at a local level.

Anita Burrough, PTES Orchard Officer, who led the project team, says: “We are proud to have completed this important inventory which for the first time gives us a true picture of the state of traditional orchards.

The mosaic of habitats that comprise a traditional orchard provide food and shelter for at least 1,800 species of wildlife, including the rare noble chafer beetle which relies on the decaying wood of old fruit trees. With this loss of habitat, we also face losing rare English fruit varieties, traditions, customs and knowledge, in addition to the genetic diversity represented by the hundreds of species that are associated with traditional orchards”.

Dr Peter Brotherton, Head of Biodiversity for Natural England, said: “Traditional orchards can be biodiversity hot spots, but without proper protection and sensitive management, they can easily slip into decline. Up until now, many of these biodiversity goldmines were quietly deteriorating in forgotten corners of the countryside, becoming overgrown or being lost altogether. This research has enabled us to pin point their precise location, allowing conservationists to work with local communities and landowners in helping to keep these special sites buzzing with wildlife”.

Over 1800 species of wildlife are associated with the traditional  orchard habitat (PTES)
Over 1800 species of wildlife are associated with the traditional orchard habitat (PTES)

Characteristically traditional orchards consist of a low density of trees set in seminatural, mainly herbaceous, vegetation. They are cultivated using low-intensity methods such as the absence of pesticides and the use of grazing animals instead of machines for mowing. This important habitat is becoming rare as we rely increasingly on imports to provide cheap fruit throughout the year. This has left the traditional orchard habitat, an intrinsic feature of the English countryside, at risk from neglect, intensification of agriculture and pressure from land development. 

The value of this vital inventory is demonstrated by the range of practical ways in which it will be used including:

   ●   Habitat restoration and creation

   ●   Identifying orchards in local planning policies and development control

   ●   Integrating habitat information and species distribution to support conservation action

   ●   Working in partnership with orchard owners to provide advice and practical support

   ●   Targeting Environmental Stewardship scheme options for management of traditional orchards. The survey revealed that around 2831.55 hectares of England’s traditional orchards are currently within Environmental Stewardship schemes

Work is now underway to extend this project to Wales and will be completed in December 2012.

For further information, please visit www.ptes/orchards or to get involved please email

First published in CJS Focus on Trees and Hedges in association with The Tree Council, for National Tree Week on 21 November 2011

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