Since 2011, The Orchard Project has been working with communities to restore old and neglected orchards through educational programmes and sessions on restorative pruning.
These old orchards have much value, in terms of biodiversity, amenity, food source, genetic, local distinctiveness and intrinsic worth. In the UK, we have lost over 60% of our traditional orchards since the 1960s. In London, due to rapid development and the expansion of the suburbs many orchards were grubbed up, or ended up fragmented in gardens. Take a train from Waterloo towards the Merton area and you’ll pass garden after garden each with a mature apple or pear.
Restoration of the orchard Bethlem Royal Hospital (back in 2010, when we were called the London Orchard Project; apologies for confusion!)
Thankfully, however, there are a few intact (or partially intact) traditional orchards remaining. Some of the most splendid examples of these ‘remnant’ orchards exist in the grounds of old hospitals, or where hospitals were once situated. Bethlem Royal hospital perhaps boasts the finest example, with just under 2 acres of veteran apple trees trained as standards. Claybury Park orchard in Redbridge is another example, although the hospital no longer remains there. In 2010 the GLA provided us with some information about the possible whereabouts of the remaining orchards. Old maps can be used to locate orchards and then checked with recent maps using google earth, the straight lines of trees being quite easy to spot aerially. You can see the locations of the old, veteran orchards we’ve restored on our Orchard Map here.
Veteran orchards are well worth saving; they often have high biodiversity, cultural, heritage and genetic value. With modern commercial fruit growers favouring small, shorter lived trees, it’s vital to safeguard our traditional orchards. Read about profiles of the 30 veteran orchards we’ve restored here.
Our aim is to work with communities to improve the health of these orchards, thereby extending their lives to ‘buy time’ to plant replacement trees that will grow mature enough to provide habitat for the wild life once the old trees die. This habitat continuation also helps to keep these local features in place, increases interest in them, making it more unlikely that they’ll be grubbed up, and allows us time to propagate new trees from the old, preserving the genetic diversity being lost rapidly from our food crops.
Once a possible orchard is located, it can be checked by having someone go and look at the site to determine whether or not any trees remain there. Research may need to be carried out about who owns the land, ease of access etc. A minimum for consideration for a restoration project should be five mature trees, with easy access. Notes should be taken on the condition of the trees and photos taken so that we can get a sense of how old they are and which ones are worth conserving. More advice on this can be found
Linking with a local group
You’ll then need to find a local group who are willing to get involved in the project. Start by contacting local wildlife trusts, conservation groups, ‘friends of the park’ groups. Most of our restoration projects so far have been with local perk conservation volunteer groups. This has worked really well as they’re usually very keen, attend regular sessions and so know each other and work well together.
Kit required for the day
- First aid kit
- Long handles *
- Long handle saw attachments *
- Hook attachment
- Lopper attachment
- Silky saws
- Bow saws
- Gloves *
- Hardhats *
- Safety goggles *
Format of the day
A member of our team usually starts by giving an introduction to the day, including background and H&S. A trained workshop leader (either a consultant or experienced member of TOP) will then walk the orchard with the group, pointing out features of interest and good examples of branches needing removal before carrying out a demonstration pruning on a tree. This includes how to make a cut and undercut. The group is then asked to get into groups, gear up and pick a tree, then discuss between them which bits they might prioritise for removal. Each group then shares their thoughts with the leader, who agrees or disagrees and offers pointers to get them going. Each group then works on their tree, with guidance when required from the leader, before moving onto the next tree.
Pruning of old trees
This is something that comes with practice and there is no substitute for on the ground training and learning through doing. The following serves simply as a guide. See our advice page on veteran tree pruning here.
- Fruit trees are early senescent hard wood trees which means that they develop veteran tree characteristics (hollowed out heart wood, rot holes) earlier in their lives than trees such as Oak. This makes them excellent habitat for a range of wild life and this needs to be considered throughout any work carried on old trees.
- Fruit trees in orchards have been shaped by people through pruning; these shapes are therefore not natural. As a result, if the trees become neglected, new growth can cause imbalance and overcrowding in the canopy, and this can lead to disease and loss of whole scaffold branches due to over burden. The latter is a common way in which old trees are lost; the old scaffold branches have become hollowed out naturally become over burdened with vertical summer ‘water shoots’ that have been left to grow into large diameter branches. These young branches, ‘trees on trees’, are dense and their weight, combined with a large crop can be enough to break to the whole tree apart.
- The key aims for restoration are to: reduce the height of the tree, reduce the weight load on the scaffold branches, re-open the canopy for light and air penetration, remove diseased and some dead material.
- Do not be too quick to remove all dead wood from the canopy; standing deadwood (as opposed to dead wood on the forest floor) is valuable habitat for a range of organisms. Small diameter wood (branches, twigs) can be taken out, but larger diameter dead wood that is obviously safe, in the sense that it won’t fall onto someone, can be left as habitat.
- Veteran trees may be shocked by the removal of too much wood in one year, so only 20% of the canopy should be removed in any one year. The whole restoration may be carried out over a period of three years or more. The first year should focus on priority cuts, like rubbing or diseased material, and taking the weight off major structural branches. Then in the second year, this can be continued to open up the canopy. In year three, ‘fine tuning’ can be carried out; thinning out the smaller, ‘crabby’ branches where growth has stagnated due to lack of light and reducing the number of fruit buds. For further detail on restorative pruning, see our advice page on veteran tree pruning here.
If you know of an old orchard that needs restoring, do contact our Project Manager, Stephanie, on firstname.lastname@example.org .