National Trust vows to ‘bring back the 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.
Results are published today as the conservation charity kicks off this year’s #BlossomWatch campaign, now in its second full year.
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 and installations at National Trust places including everything from ‘blossom hammocks’ to painting workshops.
Last year the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and National Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady opened the London Blossom Garden and this year there will be city-wide installations in Birmingham as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival.
Today’s study 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. It is aimed at improving understanding of the historic loss of blossom across landscapes, and the impact on nature and wildlife.
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.
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.
In Wales a loss of 948Ha of traditionally managed orchards, 48 per cent, since around 1900, is significant but compares much more favourably than England, likely due to the number of orchards in Wales which are small family-scale orchards that are not exposed to the development and modernisation pressures experienced in England, particularly in the commercial sector.
‘Total blossom’ from orchards in Wales has fallen by 38 per cent to 1,240Ha since around 1900.
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 landscapes in the past, which is invaluable when thinking about how to tackle the nature and biodiversity crisis that we are facing, and restoring nature.”
Looking in more detail at orchard loss in the regions, the north of England, whilst being home to only a relatively small proportion of the orchards in England and Wales in 1900, has seen the largest regional declines in orchard area, with 80 per cent in the north-west, 78 per cent in the north-east and 77 per cent in Yorkshire and Humber.
However, 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.
London and the south-east fared much better with the smallest overall orchard losses of 24 per cent, largely due to the number of significant modern orchards which have been planted. However, the region has seen a reduction of 84 per cent in the area of traditional orchards, representing big losses in nature value.
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.
It is also planting new traditional orchards at sites to include Stourhead in Wiltshire, Arlington Court in Devon, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, Brockhampton in Herefordshire, Attingham Park in Shropshire, Westhumble in Surrey and is planting new fruit trees at Cotehele in Cornwall which is already home to traditional orchards.
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 – with a new project in Birmingham this spring – a city which was described historically as a ‘town ringed by blossom’.
In Birmingham in 1900 there were 186ha of orchards compared to just 29ha today – with a further 0.5ha of modern orchards. Unsurprisingly, cities have experienced many of the biggest losses as they have grown in size.
As part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six-month celebration of creativity which surrounds the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, the Trust is creating two pop-up blossom gardens in the city centre, thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, at Birmingham Cathedral and at Edgbaston Street.
The trees will then be moved from their temporary homes to form part of a display for the Games in Birmingham over the summer, before a legacy planting programme starts in the autumn. The ornamental cherry trees, plus more than 500 blossoming trees to include apple, pear, plum will be planted to recreate a symbolic ‘ring of blossom’ around the city, following Birmingham’s 27 mile, iconic, circular number 11 bus route.
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.
“Here 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, 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
Further orchard analysis:
According to county analysis, it is not surprising that those which have become dominated by cities reveal the greatest losses in orchard area including Greater London (94 per cent), Merseyside at (92 per cent) and Bristol (90 per cent).
However, the counties of Devon in the south-west and Worcestershire in the west Midlands 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. Sampled areas of a number of Welsh counties (including Gwynedd, West Glamorgan, South Glamorgan and Clwyd) indicate an overall growth in both traditional orchards and all orchards as a whole since 1900 – though the original hectarage of orchards in each of these areas appears to have been very modest (<50Ha).
There have also been huge declines in English cities as they have grown in size with the biggest orchard losses in Cheltenham (99 per cent) in Gloucestershire, London (97 per cent) and Maidstone (97 per cent) in Kent.
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).
The loss of 1,861Ha of orchards in Wales recorded in 1900 appears to have been driven by changing land use to ‘improved grassland’ (57 per cent), deciduous woodland (18 per cent) and urban and suburban (16 per cent).
Tom Dommett 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 and how to mitigate some of the effects.
“For hundreds of years orchards were a defining feature in many places, part of the fabric of everyday life. Their loss affects local culture, how we all experience landscapes, 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 AI techniques 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 on this topic, there are so many opportunities to look at more areas of the United Kingdom, to add time-depth by examining more historic maps 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 which will not only improve our traditional orchard inventory, but will also help our ongoing efforts to preserve and restore this enormously biodiverse habitat. We hope that volunteer surveyors will visit the orchards identified and report their findings back to us.”
For further information and to make a donation towards the National Trust’s tree planting ambitions visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blossom-watch
Picture Editor’s Notes
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