Old orchards are magical places. I grew up in a picturesque village in Kent, surrounded by apple and cherry orchards, and I vividly remember climbing the trees when the blossoms were bursting with life. A few weeks later, the lightest breeze would pick up the delicate fallen petals, transforming the orchard into a living snow globe, while the bees danced drunkenly and birdsong reverberated through the flower-scented air.
I remember finding glow-worms on a midsummer’s evening. Their bioluminescence seemed positively miraculous to an irrepressibly curious twelve-year old. I remember discovering hollowed-out holes in a gnarled old apple tree and daydreaming about the elves and gnomes that might inhabit them. The orchard was a place where all of my senses were heightened and my imagination could run wild.
In the autumn came the illicit thrill of scrumping. No apple could ever taste better than the forbidden fruit plucked straight from the tree by my eager hands, while my eyes apprehensively scanned the outer treeline for a righteously angry farmer. I’d run home with sticky fingers and a juicy chin, and proudly show off my haul of Bramleys as big as my head, which my mother dutifully baked into the most delicious apple tarts and crumbles.
As the nights grew colder and winter set in, the windfalls provided desperately needed calories for hungry squirrels, their cheeks bulging with their ill-gotten gains. Rotting apples made a satisfying squishing sound when I trod them into the mud. And if I was lucky, I would catch the occasional sight of hares boxing in the spring, with a boisterousness that belied their rabbit-like appearance.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised that not everyone gets to experience these things. To many people, the bucolic bliss of my childhood must sound like it comes straight from the pages of an Enid Blyton novel. It saddens me to think that so many city dwellers have never visited a traditional orchard and watched the dappled light penetrate the leaf canopy, let alone enjoyed the taste of a perfectly ripe apple picked fresh from the branch. I think that everyone should have the opportunities that I had to feel awe and elation at nature’s beauty, because this experience of wonder is so integral to being human. Too many of us inhabit a disenchanted, alienated world, in which nature is reduced to an abstract idea and fleeting images on a screen. I feel a sense of emptiness if I don’t spend time out in nature, and I know that I’m not alone in experiencing this disconnection as disquieting. There is a broad consensus among mental health professionals that time spent in green spaces can help us to improve our mood, reduce stress and increase our self-confidence and self-esteem. We simply aren’t designed to stare at screens all day.
Sometimes, I wish that we lived in a simpler age and that we were spared the pressures of modern life. But it’s just too simplistic to hark back to an imagined pre-industrial past and attribute our estrangement from nature to the inevitable realities of the twenty-first century. We didn’t just drift away from the orchards as we left the countryside for the cities in search of a better living and wider horizons. The orchards were stolen from us, piece by piece.
According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, 90% of England’s traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950s due to neglect, development and replanting. 45% of the remaining traditional orchards are in a state of decline. These figures should be deeply concerning to anyone who loves spending time in nature, cares about cider or is concerned about the environment. The loss of a mature orchard removes a piece of beauty from the world, but it also strikes a crushing blow to biodiversity.
Traditional orchards, with their large and widely-spaced trees of diverse varieties, are havens for wildlife. Since 2007, they have therefore been designated as Priority Habitats in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. A peculiar but vital property of apple trees is their early senescence – they begin to decay much faster than most other tree species. Paradoxically, this decomposition provides a unique habitat that supports hundreds of different insects, bats, birds and small mammals. The hollow trunks of mature trees offer ideal nesting spots for bats and birds, and the rotting wood houses and feeds a multitude of insects. The wide spacing between the trees allows sunlight into the orchard, benefiting cold-blooded flying insects such as bees and butterflies, which feed on the pollen from the wild flowers and grasses that grow beneath the trees. Traditional orchards often have ponds, which attract amphibians such as newts and frogs. Their hedgerows are ideal hibernation sites for hedgehogs and dormice. In short, the traditional orchard is a thriving and interconnected ecosystem. It is magical because it inhabits a shadow realm between light and shade, decay and renewal. Nature’s rhythm finds a balance between these poles; as the trees slowly die, they sustain the cycle of life.
Modern commercial orchards are also paradoxical: Productivity is king, but death reigns supreme. The ecological benefits of senescent trees are effectively eliminated by regular replanting. Frequent spraying, high-density planting and trees grown on semi-dwarfing rootstocks band together to create a hostile environment for the species that thrive in traditional orchards. The trees are planted too close together to attract many bees and butterflies, and few of these insects are able to withstand the regular onslaught of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Moreover, the trees are too short to provide good nesting sites for birds, and they are too young to support the insects that depend on rotting wood. While modern commercial orchards may look fertile and verdant, they are therefore often environmentally barren. To my eyes, the identical rows of stakes and diminutive saplings that stretch as far as the eye can see resemble war cemeteries, solemnly marking the death of something immeasurably more valuable.
I don’t blame the farmers for this devastation. The price that they receive for bulk apples and pears is so pathetically low that they often have no choice but to maximise yields by grubbing up mature orchards and replacing them with younger trees. Profit margins are wafer-thin and the lure of a large payout from a property developer can prove too much for cash-strapped farmers to resist. Ultimately, the blame for the demise of traditional orchards lies squarely with the supermarkets, the developers and the politicians.
For the supermarkets, the Holy Grail of apple growing is a dessert apple variety that is regularly sized and shaped, relatively immune to bruising and suitable for long-term cold storage. In order to allow farmers to turn a profit, the ideal commercial variety should also be high-yielding and disease-resistant. Very few apple varieties meet all of these commercial criteria. In the course of our history, over 2,500 different varieties of apple have been discovered in the UK, but just two varieties (Gala and Braeburn) account for almost 50% of all of the apples sold in the supermarkets. The supermarkets couldn’t care less about where these apples were grown, as long as they can acquire them for the lowest possible price. About 70% of the apples on the shelves are imported from countries as distant from Britain as Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.
The mass importation of apples from faraway lands is clearly harmful to the environment and bad for British farmers, who are forced to compete with producers in countries with much lower labour costs. But the damage wreaked by the supermarkets doesn’t stop there. They have systematically used their buying power to dictate which varieties farmers grow and have leveraged their near-monopoly on the dessert apple market to keep bulk apple prices unsustainably low. As a result, you will probably never see an apple grown in a traditional orchard on a supermarket shelf. Only farmers who practice modern commercial agriculture on a large scale can make an economically viable business out of producing apples for our lunch boxes. The supermarkets are consequently one of the most powerful driving forces behind the industrialisation of British fruit farming and the demise of more traditional, environmentally balanced farming methods.
Despite their status as Priority Habitats, the level of legal protection afforded to traditional orchards is pitiful. Unless an orchard is located in a National Nature Reserve or Conservation Area, or has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a Local Nature Reserve, it enjoys no effective legal protection. If property developers knocked down a 15th century church to make way for a concrete tower block, there would be justified public outcry. But ancient orchards, which are more beautiful than almost any building, can be ripped up with impunity by any developer with deep pockets, a short-sighted business plan and no concern for the environmental and social havoc that they are wreaking.
Many traditional orchards have been destroyed because Local Authorities have prioritised development over their conservation. Councils are obliged to find land for new housing quotas assigned to them by the central government, and ‘unproductive’ orchards within and on the boundaries of towns and villages have frequently been earmarked as suitable for development. This presents lucrative opportunities for developers, who are major donors to our current party of government. A recent report has found that a fifth of the Conservative Party’s donations come from the residential property sector. It’s a cardinal rule of politics that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so it’s not particularly surprising that both the environmental costs of destroying orchards and the objections of local residents have so often been ignored by government departments and local councils.
Our elected representatives, however, are not only guilty of wilful neglect. They have not just turned a blind eye to questionable developments in order to keep their comfy seats on the political gravy train, but have also actively facilitated the destruction of traditional orchards. Over the past few decades, successive British governments and the EU have enacted legislation that incentivises farmers to destroy traditional orchards. In some cases, EU grants have paid for orchards to be grubbed up and replaced with more ‘productive’ farmland. Our current government is committed to relaxing the planning laws to speed up the rate at which houses are built and make it easier for developers to be granted planning permission. The environmental consequences of these policies are potentially disastrous.
It is undeniable that the UK has a clear and pressing need for more affordable housing, but I think that it’s equally self-evident that endless development of the countryside is not a sustainable way to meet that need. Besides, the overwhelming majority of new housing built in the countryside doesn’t meet the government’s own standards for affordability, so it doesn’t even begin to contribute to solving the housing crisis. The government is banking on building its way out of this crisis and has committed to delivering 300,000 new homes per year by the mid 2020s. The construction of numerous new ‘garden communities’ in the countryside is central to this plan.
According to the Conservatives’ free market ideology, when the supply of housing begins to catch up with demand, property will gradually become more affordable. But this political position has a fatal flaw: There are few genuine incentives for private sector developers to provide low-cost housing. Why would developers devote their energy to building homes for first-time buyers with limited budgets, when they can make much higher profits building expensive properties and selling them to wealthy investors attracted by soaring house prices? In the absence of meaningful incentives to build genuinely affordable housing, most developers will simply pay the minimum required affordable housing contribution to the Local Authority, and press on with building homes that are out of the financial reach of large swathes of the population.
In many cases, developers not only lack incentives to build affordable housing, but actually have no reason to build homes at all. In England, property management companies currently have planning permission for over 1.1 million homes that have not been built, because they can make higher profits from simply holding onto and reselling empty sites. The housing crisis is not so much caused by a lack of available sites as by the hoarding of sites that have been earmarked for development. These so-called ‘land banks’ may yield dividends to company shareholders, but they deprive many more of us of a home of our own. Moreover, the fact that so many suitable sites for development are tied up in land banks directly results in councils turning to less suitable greenfield sites as the only available locations for new housing. This puts unnecessary pressure on natural habitats, including traditional orchards.
The UK’s housing crisis is not an unsolvable problem and extensive habitat loss is not an inevitable side-effect of attempting to solve it. There are cost-effective and realistic solutions open to us, but our government lacks the political will to implement them. Numerous planning experts have long argued that the government should increase funding for social housing, especially in high-demand urban areas, and that it should largely restrict new development to brownfield sites. The government also has the power to apply price caps to the rents charged by private landlords, increase Local Housing Allowance and introduce taxes to discourage speculation, under-occupation and land banks. Simultaneously implementing all of these policies would help to increase the affordability of housing, while minimising the environmental impact of development. However, passing such legislation would require politicians to stand up to the powerful property lobby. Our current government won’t make this stand, for the simple reason that the financial ties between the Conservative Party and the big developers run as deep as a property tycoon’s pockets.
To cut a long story short, the UK’s current planning system is rotten to the core. Unlike the decomposition of senescent apple trees, this rot does not benefit biodiversity, but rather leads to Britain’s natural landscape being swallowed up by the rolling tide of expensive new housing estates that do not serve the interests of those on lower incomes.
The government’s half-hearted attempts to mitigate the environmental damage caused by a planning system that is unfit for purpose have been largely counterproductive. In current planning legislation, the environmental impact of new developments is measured against a criterion known as Biodiversity Net Gain. This criterion specifies that new developments must either result in no net loss in biodiversity, or offset damage to natural habitats with a 10% net gain in biodiversity elsewhere. In practice, this means that developers are allowed to compensate for destroying a complex habitat such as a traditional orchard by offering to replace it with a newly created habitat, which doesn’t have to be located on the same site.
The principal problem with this purported solution to habitat loss is that it falsely assumes that newly created habitats have the same biodiversity value as ancient habitats. A recently-planted sapling does not have the same ecological benefits as an old apple tree: It will take decades to properly establish itself and achieve the senescence required to support the species that inhabit traditional orchards. Since many of these species are rare or endangered, there is no guarantee that they will be able to re-establish themselves in new habitats if their current homes are destroyed. The principle of Biodiversity Net Gain therefore trades present biodiversity for uncertain future gains, and all too often results in the replacement of high-quality habitats with lower-quality ones.
It seems that the climate emergency makes the news almost every day. The loss of some habitats is very widely reported. For example, it’s pretty hard not to be aware of the deforestation of the Amazon, the environmental destruction caused by the production of palm oil in Borneo, or the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. We should care about these ecosystems, because losing them has profound implications for the future of our species and our planet. But I think that we should also care about the hidden habitat loss that takes place closer to home, in the British countryside. Traditional orchards are an integral part of the British landscape, they are precious community resources, they have significant ecological value and there would be far less good cider without them. Their very existence is under threat and they deserve our protection.
These days, it seems pretty much mandatory for cider makers to vaunt their green credentials, vocally express their commitment to sustainability and show us pretty pictures of their heavily-laden apple trees. Many small artisanal producers really do care about the environment and do everything that they can to nurture and conserve their orchards. But as far as the British cider industry as a whole is concerned, the slow and agonising death of traditional orchards is the elephant in the room. Most of the larger cider producers have no use for traditional orchards, because their ciders are made from imported apple concentrate rather than from freshly pressed apple juice. And even those producers who make full-juice ciders and who care about sustainability are sometimes forced to conclude that their older orchards are not productive enough to be profitable.
It’s all too easy for us consumers to turn a blind eye to these issues. For most of us, the countryside is somewhere that we visit from time to time, and the destruction of traditional orchards is therefore concealed from our view. We tend to approach cider appreciation as a hobby; a way to unwind and take a break from the stresses of modern life. A quiet glass of cider is a moment of reprieve, and the last thing we want is for thoughts of habitat loss and the climate emergency to rudely intrude on that precious respite. As a result, I think that many of us are guilty of not fighting hard enough to save our traditional orchards, even though we genuinely care about cider.
I am just as guilty of inaction as most other people. I’m no moral saint and I expect that my environmental credentials are no better than average. But the more that I think about these issues, the more I come to realise that caring about cider logically commits me to caring about orchards. This is less a question of fervent environmentalism than of straightforward self-interest. Most of the best ciders and perries that I’ve tasted were made from fruit grown in traditional orchards. Several of my favourite apple and pear varieties are currently only grown in a few of these orchards. If I want to continue to enjoy ciders and perries made from such rare treasures as Sweet Coppin, Betty Prosser, Flakey Bark and Slack-ma-Girdle, I can’t just stand back and watch while our traditional orchards are wiped off the face of the planet. When I cast my mind back to my childhood in the Kentish countryside, I realise that orchards are the source of some of my most cherished memories. What kind of person would I be if I allowed future generations to be deprived of the opportunities to have their own orchard adventures? Could I look myself in the mirror if I allowed all of that heritage, biodiversity and beauty to disappear, without even putting up a fight?
I can only answer these questions with a resounding “NO!” I am aware that saving our orchards will be a difficult war to win, not least because there are so many vested interests stacked against us. The forces that imperil our orchards are complex and systemic. They include food supply chains, agricultural and planning policies and the relentless forward march of globalisation. Nothing short of transformation at a societal level is going to solve the deeply entrenched and interconnected problems with these systems. I certainly don’t have all of the answers about how to achieve that transformation, but I firmly believe that our first step toward finding solutions is to acknowledge the elephant in the room. And while I think that our individual actions are not in themselves sufficient to solve these problems, I nonetheless believe that they can have a meaningful impact. There are steps that we can all take to reduce and mitigate the damage to orchard habitats. On reflection, I think that there are five key principles that we can apply in our lives to try to ensure that traditional orchards have a future in this country.
In order to be motivated to save our orchards, we need to feel connected to them. It isn’t enough to have an intellectual understanding of the threats to traditional orchards, we also need to be emotionally invested in saving them. Let’s face it, there are countless worthy and important causes that we frequently ignore, because our lives are busy and we simply don’t have the time and energy to care about everything that matters. We will only be driven to fight for our orchards if they matter to us in a direct and personal way.
This means that people need to visit their local orchards. They need to take some time out of their busy lives to revel in nature’s beauty. They need to walk around and watch the birds, the butterflies and the bees. The chances are that if you do this, you will feel less stressed, pressured and anxious by the time that you get home. If you have had this kind of experience, take a moment to remind yourself that the beauty, peace and tranquility that you enjoyed in the orchard are threatened; that they could be extinguished at any moment by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s biro. This should make you angry. Use that anger as a catalyst for action.
Farmers and cider makers have a vital role to play in encouraging people to reconnect with orchards. Many craft cider producers already allow the public to visit their orchards, but if you own an orchard, it’s worth considering how you could expand public access and find new ways to get people involved. Community orchard groups have engaged their local communities by offering nature walks, educational projects for school children, spring blossom days, community picnics and wassailing celebrations. They have invited local people to participate in the apple harvest, thus turning it into a communal endeavour. Some cider producers have adopted a number of these ideas, but there remains a lot of potential for such communal activities to become more widespread in the cider scene.
Saving traditional orchards requires us to change our consumption habits and reduce our reliance on the products of industrial agriculture. If you can, try to avoid buying your eating apples from the supermarkets and get them from market stalls and greengrocers that source locally grown varieties. You’ll be supporting your local farmers and reducing food miles, and I guarantee that a fresh, locally grown apple is tastier and better for you than an apple that has sat in cold storage for months and been shipped across the world.
As a cider lover, try to buy your cider from artisanal cider makers who nurture their traditional orchards, which include many of the producers that we write about on Cider Review. Find & Foster, Ross on Wye, Tom Oilver, Little Pomona, Artistraw, Cwm Maddoc and Bushel & Peck all deserve to be celebrated for championing traditional orchards, but there are many other producers who put caring for their orchards at the heart of what they do. In his ‘Rethinking cider: a story of apple trees’, Adam compellingly argues that at its best, cider expresses the distinctive qualities of particular apple varieties and has a genuine sense of place. If we want to drink the best ciders available to us, we should therefore source them from the producers who devote the greatest care and attention to their apple varieties, their trees and their land.
In one of my previous articles, I explained why these artisanal ciders are inevitably more expensive than industrial ciders made from concentrate, and why the future of cider depends on producers being able to charge more for craft products. If you can afford to, you should be prepared to pay more for your cider. There’s no good reason why a bottle of good cider from an environmentally conscious producer should cost significantly less than a decent bottle of wine. The more profits that these producers make, the more resources they can devote to the maintenance and renewal of their orchards. If you are only prepared to pay £3 per bottle, then it’s likely that many craft cider makers will go out of business and have to sell their orchards to the highest bidder, who will likely replace them with something more immediately profitable, like a car park or a chain restaurant. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been awestruck by the beauty of parking meters and mediocre pizzas.
In order to conserve traditional orchards, we need to exert as much pressure as possible on our politicians to strengthen their legal protection. Consider writing to your MP to ask about the measures that the government is taking to protect orchards. In your letter, explain why orchards are so valuable and express your dismay at the damage caused to them by current planning policies. Your MP is not legally obliged to respond (and don’t expect to receive much more than a bunch of platitudes if they do), but politicians do tend to take more notice of issues if they are regularly brought to their attention. More importantly, try to avoid voting for politicians and political parties that kowtow to the property lobby. I don’t think that any major political party in this country is entirely blameless in this regard, but in most constituencies, the ABC principle (Anything But the Conservatives) is likely to result in the lesser evil.
If you belong to a community organisation with at least 21 members, you can also help to protect your local orchard by nominating it as an Asset of Community Value. This mechanism is designed to allow local people to take control of property that benefits their community. If your application is accepted by your Local Authority, then your organisation will have the right to bid on the orchard should it ever go up for sale. Even if you can’t raise the funds to buy the orchard, achieving the Asset of Communal Value designation indicates that an orchard is an important communal resource and may help to establish a presumption against future development.
If you don’t belong to a community organisation, you can still write to the Tree Officer at your Local Planning Authority and ask them to place preservation orders on old fruit trees. Preservation orders can be overridden by planning permission, but they do make it slightly more difficult for developers to destroy trees, and they confer an obligation to replace any felled trees with new ones. Replacing established fruit trees with saplings is less than ideal, but it is still better than cutting them down and not replacing them at all.
If you know of an orchard that is threatened by development, you can object to the planning application and encourage other members of your local community to do likewise. Useful resources on how to object to a planning application and organise a community campaign against a proposed development can be found on the Woodland Trust’s website.
While creating new habitats does not compensate for destroying existing ones, it can nonetheless have ecological benefits in the longer term. If you have a garden, consider planting an apple tree, preferably from one of the older and rarer varieties. As James notes in his article on the value of orchards, your tree will help the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions, and the apples that you grow will taste infinitely nicer than any supermarket apple. You could even use your apples to have a go at making your own cider. With a bit of research and practice, it’s not that hard to make a cider that tastes better than most of the industrial stuff, even if you’re unlikely to beat the best craft cider makers at their own game.
Whether or not you have a garden, you can support charities that plant community orchards, such as the fantastic Orchard Project, by donating or volunteering. The Orchard Project aims to ensure that every household in the UK is within walking distance of a well-cared-for, community-run orchard, with vibrant natural habitats. Since 2009, the charity has planted and renewed over 540 community orchards, many of which are located in under-used urban spaces. It also provides valuable training in orchard maintenance, forest gardening and cider making to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom have gone on to pursue careers in horticulture. As a cider lover, you might be particularly interested to hear that the Orchard Project produces its own range of full-juice ciders, which are sold under the Local Fox brand. They are made from donated and surplus apples to tackle waste, and they are currently available from Farmdrop. James has reviewed them here, and I wholeheartedly second his opinion that they are well worth buying. All profits from the sale of these ciders go directly towards community orchard projects.
One of the cider scene’s greatest strengths is its sense of community. The principle of community underpins all the others, because we can only save our orchards if we work together towards the shared goals of reconnecting with nature, changing our patterns of consumption, conserving orchard habitats and creating new ecosystems. One of my favourite articles on Cider Review is Adam’s ‘An apple-scented wonder of the world’, in which he expresses his hopes for the future of cider and celebrates the richness, diversity and growing confidence of the cider scene. I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments, but I think that in order for the cider community to continue to develop and blossom, our optimism must be tempered by a hard-headed awareness of the threats that it faces. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking that these challenges will go away if we ignore them, and we shouldn’t be blinkered about the scale of the issues that confront us.
The threats facing orchards are immediate and severe. That’s why we need to organise, and why community orchard groups and urban cideries, such as Duckchicken and Green Shed, are so vitally important. Community orchards can bring people together in a common endeavour. They provide spaces in which we can take collective action to improve biodiversity and food security, and they give us all opportunities to feel connected to nature. They are good for our mental and physical health, and they offer one of the greatest hopes for the continued existence of rare fruit varieties. As Adam writes in a recent article, urban orchards and cideries have the potential to reach new demographics, thus increasing the number of people who are involved in the cider scene and who care about the issues that affect it. The future of artisanal cider may well depend on the proliferation of these spaces, and I encourage you to participate in the national organisations that promote and support them. Please consider getting involved in The People’s Trust for Endangered Species, The Orchard Project, The Woodland Trust and The Wildlife Trusts. Take the time to discover your local community orchard and find out what you can do to help it flourish. Connecting with existing organisations and campaigns aimed at saving our orchards is crucial, because they can help us to effectively coordinate our efforts. Our participation in these organisations inspires us to create new spaces in which orchards can thrive, and motivates us to build vibrant communities of like-minded people striving towards the same goals.
I write about cider because I hope that people who share my fascination with it will read my articles. It would be very presumptuous of me to expect anything more than that from my audience. I may encourage you to buy certain ciders and perries that I particularly enjoy, but I’m not generally in the business of telling you what to do. I’m not an environmental scientist, or an expert on agriculture, supply chains or the planning system, and my opinions on these topics carry no more weight than anyone else’s. You have every right to reject the suggestions that I have made in this article and to disagree with my politics. However, I think that it’s an undeniable fact that there are currently few greater threats to the continued existence of artisanal cider than the ongoing loss of orchard habitats. I therefore believe that it’s time for conservation and sustainability to be placed front and centre of the cider conversation. For all of its limitations, this article has been my attempt to do just that.