Majority of National Trust orchards report excellent harvest thanks to sustained good weather at critical time
Hundreds of National Trust gardens and orchards are reporting an excellent year for apples due to ideal weather conditions.
A lack of late frosts, a largely warm, settled and lengthy spring resulted in a spectacular and prolonged blossom season, which when followed by rain in July and August has helped the fruit to swell.
The harvest is also taking place slightly earlier than usual largely due to the warm spring which helped create the perfect weather conditions for pollinators like honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees to get the fruit off to a good start.
The conservation charity cares for over 200 traditional apple orchards which are important habitats for nature across the country with orchards as far north as Ardress in Northern Ireland, Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire and Sizergh in Cumbria and as far south as Cotehele and Trelissick in Cornwall – with the majority reporting a very good harvest.
The exception was Ardress in County Armagh in Northern Ireland where an unexpected frost in mid-May affected blossom, but the trees produced a second bloom to save the season.
Here, National Trust tenant farmer and cider maker Greg MacNeice farms 22 acres of orchards with 2,000 apple trees. Varieties include the Armagh Bramley with traditional cider apples and some more modern cultivars like Greensleeves, Golden Delicious, Dabinett and Michelin. He says: “We had an abundance of apple blossom back in early May which normally would have indicated that we’d be harvesting a bumper crop of apples. However, in mid-May Northern Ireland recorded its lowest ever May temperature at minus 6.1 degrees Celsius.
“In the low lying parts of our orchards, the frost descended with the cold air flowing downhill much like water, collecting and pooling in the valleys and behind dense hedgerows killing off lots of delicate blooms from our early varieties and turning them black.
“But our trees are nothing if not resilient and they found a way through by producing a second lot of bloom. This ‘late bloom’ has produced apples which are smaller than normal and irregular in shape, but will nonetheless help us produce an excellent cider.
“We anticipate a crop of about 75 per cent of a normal year, which although far from ideal, is a great result considering the late frost.”
It was a more positive story at the Trust’s other traditional orchards across England and Wales. Nick Fraser, Head Gardener at Nunnington Hall, one of the northern most orchards in the charity’s care says: “Generally we do get quite a good crop, but I’d say this year is our best for at least three years.
“We care for over 25 varieties of apples here including Dogs Snout – a variety which is slightly pointed, and looks like a dog’s face; the Ribston Pippin and Yorkshire Beauty.
“Thanks to the warm spring, no late frosts and period of very settled weather we found that pollinators such as bees had excellent conditions to fertilise the flowers to form the fruit. We purposefully keep the grass long under the trees from the spring to late summer so that wildflowers such as cowslips and cuckoo flowers can help attract the bees, butterflies, wasps and hoverflies which all help pollinate the fruit.
“As we won’t be using so many apples this year in our kitchens due to visitor numbers being restricted due to coronavirus, we are bagging fruit up for visitors and asking for donations so that they can literally take the fruits of our labour to enjoy at home. We’ll also arrange for any leftovers to go to our local food bank so nothing goes to waste.”
At Cotehele in Cornwall, the main orchard is now 13 years old. With 125 trees of varying traditional varieties including eating, dessert and cider apples, the crop usually benefits from a slightly milder climate from the rest of the UK.
Head Gardener, David Bouch says: “Since we planted the orchard we have been keeping annual records to record how the harvest performs.
“This year is certainly an excellent rather than a bumper year, due to the apple trees being biennial and last year being an exceptional year. While still young, the crops are increasing year on year as the trees mature.
“As the trees continue to grow we are expecting cropping to increase year on year, but we are always subject to the weather. Thankfully being this far south we don’t typically have frosts after April, but mild winters bringing on early blossom can sometimes catch us out.
“Usually at this time of year we usually have pickers come in to turn the apples into juice or cider. Due to Covid-19, we are actually going to be inviting visitors to pick their own – and to make a small donation - to ensure the apples don’t go to waste.”
Ben McCarthy Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust says: “Traditional orchards are threatened habitats and we aim to help conserve hundreds of apple varieties and the rich cultural heritage associated with them.
“Conserving a broad variety of fruit trees directly contributes towards global efforts to maintain plant genetic diversity that is so crucial for food and economic security.
“The benefit of this diversity is evidenced particularly by the ability of some varieties being better able to weather a variety of environmental pressures – traits that become increasingly important as we face into climate change, new pests and diseases, and as we saw at the orchards in Northern Ireland this year.
“By enjoying the fruits of our labour - in your apple pies and chutneys - we can put real economic value on our traditional orchards which have declined in numbers by 90 per cent since the 1950s due to neglect and a move towards more intensive fruit production.
“Our traditional orchards provide a rich mosaic of fruit trees, often old and gnarled above a flowery spray of unimproved grassland and typically enclosed by hedges. This creates a fantastic mix of habitats that supports rare plants, lichens and invertebrates thrive as well as keeping our traditional landscapes alive with the sound of wassailing and bird song alike.”
For more information on the wide variety of heritage varieties grown at National Trust places and to find out which orchards are open for visitors, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Picture editor’s notes:
A range of images from several National Trust orchards can be found in the link below. These should be used in conjunction with this story only, and credited as indicated.