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National Trust vows to ‘bring back blossom’ as new research reveals massive drop in orchards since 1900s

Posted in News by Lauren Webb on 7th April 2022

National Trust vows to ‘bring back blossom’ as new research reveals massive drop in orchards since 1900s

The area of orchards in England and Wales has halved since the early 1900s according to new research by the National Trust resulting in huge losses in habitats for nature, and meaning fewer people can enjoy one of nature’s great spectacles – spring blossom.

It is the first comprehensive review of both traditional and modern orchards in England and Wales using data from the National Library of Scotland’s historic map collection, data from People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Natural England, and analysed using artificial intelligence (AI) mapping technologies from ArchAI Ltd. 

Results are published today as the conservation charity kicks off this year’s #BlossomWatch campaign, now in its second full year. The results reveal a loss in orchards of 56 per cent, with just 43,017Ha left growing today – equivalent to an area slightly larger than the Isle of Wight.

BlossomWatch is the Trust’s annual campaign to encourage people to enjoy and celebrate spring blossom, with the aim of embedding an annual cultural event similar to Japan’s ‘hanami’ in the UK.  It includes digital sharing of images as blossom sweeps up the land from south to north, and events at National Trust places include everything from blossom hammocks to painting workshops.

The research also exposed a huge 81 per cent decline, (78,874Ha), in traditional orchards in England and Wales – equivalent to an area close to the size of the west Midlands – spelling bad news for nature.

And, even when taking each country in isolation, England’s figures alone revealed a loss of 82 per cent of traditionally managed orchards (77,926Ha)– twice the size of the Isle of Wight.

‘Total blossom’, ie the area, from orchards in England has more than halved (56 per cent) since around 1900, with 41,777Ha left growing today.

Tom Dommett, Head of Historic Environment at the National Trust says: “Using cutting edge technology we now have a much better understanding of how we’ve managed our landscapes in the past, which is invaluable when thinking about how to tackle the nature and biodiversity crisis that we are facing in this country.

Looking in more detail at orchard loss, the south-west, which was home to the largest area of orchards at the beginning of the 20th Century, has experienced the loss of nearly 24,000Ha (around 74 per cent), over twice the size of Bristol – of its orchards, the single biggest loss in terms of hectares of any region.

However, it is the counties of Devon in the south-west and Worcestershire in the west Midlands that have seen the biggest losses in terms of hectares in any region, losing 7,082Ha and 8,240Ha respectively.

Kent is one of only three English counties (along with Suffolk and East Sussex) that has more orchards now than they did 100 years ago, with 12,027Ha, due to more modern orchards being planted. 

There have also been huge declines in South West cities as they have grown in size with the biggest orchard losses in Cheltenham (99 per cent) in Gloucestershire (97 per cent), Exeter (97 per cent) Plymouth (96 per cent), Bath (85 per cent).

Data scientists have also been able to determine through detailed analysis and comparison with the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Land Cover 2020 mapping that the loss of 88,956ha of orchards (93 per cent) recorded in England in 1900 appears to have been driven by changing land use to ‘improved grassland’ (accounting for 44 per cent of losses), urban and suburban (accounting for 28 per cent of losses) and arable (accounting for 19 per cent of losses).

Tom Continues: “By analysing the different data sets and using artificial intelligence we have been able to combine old sources and new technologies to shed new light on some of the dramatic changes our landscape has seen over the last century.

“As the population has grown, cities have expanded and there has been a growing demand for food – particularly after the second world war – with farmers able to be largely more profitable rearing livestock and growing arable crops, than managing orchards.

“Also, it’s important to take into account that many traditional orchards do have a limited life – with the typical apple or cherry tree producing fruit until they are about 80 years old when they would need potentially to be replaced – however, it’s the fact they were not then replaced with new orchards which speaks volumes.

“The dramatic decline in traditional orchards has massively affected the character and the biodiversity of our landscapes. 

“For hundreds of years orchards were a defining feature in many places, part of the fabric of everyday life.  Their loss impacts on the stories we can tell, the culture and history we can experience in the landscape, and it means fewer opportunities for people to enjoy the beauty and spectacle of blossom today. 

“The loss of traditional orchards is also nature’s loss; these orchards can be great places for wildlife like flies and bees, with the gnarled trunks and branches creating the perfect home for rare species such as the noble chafer beetle and attract patrolling bats.  Often the grass below these trees is rich in flowers, supporting an abundance of insects The web of wildlife that orchards can support, and the benefits to people are vitally important so we want encourage more people to plant more blossom trees to help nature and to recognize the value they have to our landscapes and culture.”

The National Trust is now planning to take the research further, building on the extent and accuracy of the existing data and looking at other sources of blossom in the landscape.

Tom continues: “Having shown how effective the use of artificial intelligence can be in this space, there are so many opportunities to look at more areas of the United Kingdom, to add time-depth by examining additional historic mapping and to look at other features like hedgerows which are so important both for blossom and landscape character.”

Steve Oram, Orchard Biodiversity Officer at PTES, says: “We can use this new data to help us find more traditional orchards and improve the inventory, so it will contribute to our efforts to preserve and restore this enormously biodiverse habitat. Volunteer surveyors can visit the sites identified and report their findings back to us.”

In a bid to bring blossom back to landscapes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the charity has now vowed to plant four million blossoming trees as part of its commitment to plant and establish 20 million trees across England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2030, this includes 18 new blossom projects across the South West.

New traditional orchards are being planted at sites across the South West, including, Stourhead in Wiltshire, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, Arlington Court in Devon and 100 additional fruit trees are being planted around the estate at Cotehele, which is already home to 10 acres of traditional orchards containing over 125 varieties of apple tree including the Cornish Honeypinnick, Limberlimb, Pig’s Nose and Lemon Pippin.

John Deakin, Head of Trees and Woodland at the National Trust says: “Traditional orchards and the blossom they bring creates valuable early nectar sources for insects which are often foraging for scarce resources in the early spring.  These native, historic varieties, together with other trees like blackthorn and hawthorn which also have amazing spring blossom, mature at a faster rate than other larger native species such as oak.  They therefore provide an important bridge for insects that rely on their particular eco systems which is one of the reasons why planting more blossom trees is such a vital part of our ambitions.”

The Trust is also continuing with its plans to bring more blossom back into cities – Project blossom is an ambitious plan to create inspirational green spaces in and near urban areas including in Plymouth in the South West. These projects aim to connect more people to nature and to create more spaces for hope and reflection. Work to the project in Plymouth, at Devil’s Point, over looking Plymouth Sound and funded by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, CJ Wildlife and the National Trust, is well under way.

In 1900 there were 186ha of orchards compared to just 29ha today – with a further 0.5ha of modern orchards.  However, this drop of 85 per cent actually shows that the city has fared better than most and retained some of its orchard sites.

Annie Reilly, the National Trust’s Blossom Programme Manager says: “Many of the orchards which were once on the peripheries of our towns and cities in the 18th and 19th Centuries have been lost with urban expansion and often remain as map evidence or street names only.

“In Birmingham we are aiming to recreate botanical history, recreating the shadow of past orchards that encircled the city through ornamental cherry tree planting.  Our trees will join the city’s thousands of street trees to ensure that more of the city can enjoy this fleeting moment of spring.”

With the blossom season now upon us, the National Trust and the Orchard Network (set up by the PTES), will be particularly encouraging people to celebrate the joy of blossom at the end of April.  For more information visit www.orchardnetwork.org.uk/orchard-blossom-day and .

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blossom-watch

To make a donation towards the charity’s tree planting ambitions visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blossom-watch.

Picture Credit: NT Images & Ross Hoddinott

Video Credit: National Trust