Orchard - A Year in England's Eden with Nick Gates

Our group enjoyed another outstanding Zoom presentation at its March meeting sharing the passion and expertise of BBC natural history producer Nick Gates, on the subject of orchards.
A secret ancient orchard in the heart of Herefordshire, was the subject of a long term study to understand the true value of this habitat for native wildlife by Nick and fellow naturalist Ben MacDonald. “Orchard, a year in England’s Eden” is the title of the award winning book they have written about their work.

Orchards have been a traditional component of the British landscape for many centuries and their value for wildlife has long been underestimated. Unfortunately, as in so much of the UK's agricultural landscape, modern orchards are often deserts of biodiversity: depending on expensive machinery, pesticide controls and extensive pruning to keep competitive. However, Nick makes an excellent case for working with nature rather than against it, to control pests and maintain productivity that is both commercially viable and provides a haven for nature.
Nick outlined the 3 key features which ensures orchards remain productive, not only in terms of the fruit crop, but also for the high biodiversity they can support. These are: deadwood, natural predators and an organic approach.

Deadwood is often “tidied up” in modern orchards, farms and gardens, but it is crucial in many ways. The wood is a rich food source for decay bacteria and fungi, natures recyclers, which return vital minerals to the soil for future years growth of the trees. Invertebrates thrive in the deadwood, providing food for many birds. The hollow centres of dead apple trees are an excellent nesting site for cavity nesting birds such as barn owls, stock doves and woodpeckers. Equally, decaying fruit is an essential food source for winter thrushes, including fieldfares, redwings and waxwings. So deadwood and decaying fruit need to be left!

Predators abound in the traditional orchard, particularly birds: tawny owls, goshawk, sparrowhawk, kestrel, merlin (in winter) and hobby (in summer, feeding on dragonflies and damselflies). There are also native polecats, stoats, hedgehogs, badgers and even otters feeding on frogs and toads in nearby ponds and ditches. These animals are natural “barometers” of the health of any ecosystem. Their abundance shows a rich biodiversity of plants and animals and complex food webs, which can support these top predators in large numbers.

Photo: Kestrel in flight

The organic approach ensures no pesticides or artificial fertilisers are used, which impoverish the soil over time and kill harmless and beneficial invertebrates such as cockchafers, elephant hawk moths and earthworms, all essential in supporting the top predators.
Cockchafer, Nick demonstrating how to tell male from female
Elephant Hawkmoth

Nick completed his talk by outlining the changes in the orchard over the seasons: spring is marked by redstarts, bumble bees, blossom, bulbs and butterflies such as the orange tip. In summer the orchard meadows are a buzz of invertebrates, good reason for spotted flycatchers to travel from sub-Saharan Africa each year. Rare lesser spotted woodpeckers are also attracted to the cavities provided by the standing deadwood. In autumn and winter the summer migrants depart, to be replaced by the winter thrushes, hungry for those fallen apples and pears not destined to become cider or perry. Leaf fall provides yet more food for invertebrates and the recyclers, ensuring the soil remains rich and fertile. Finally, a good growth of mistletoe provides berries, more nourishment for the winter thrushes. There is no doubt that a well-managed traditional orchard is a haven for much of our native wildlife.

Photo: bird nest in amongst the mistletoe
Photos: The orchard through the seasons:
Orange tip butterfly, spotted flycatcher, lesser spotted woodpecker, redwing

To find out more about Nick, or his book, visit his website: https://www.nicholasgates.co.uk
Dave Sage
Youtube video recording of the talk
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