Orchards should not be cut down, says farmer JOHN LEWIS-STEMPEL

When I was a kid, my grandfather took me to see his Gloucester Old Spot pigs. “Those black circles on the backs of sows,” he said, “are where falling apples bruise them.”

Such was the West Country fable of how the Pinky Gloucester Old Spot got its marks.

We were in the farm orchard, with its giant gnarled trees, the pigs scoffing at the bargains, the geese picking the grass and the tart scent of apples hanging over the autumn air.

Last week the National Trust reported that 58% of orchards in England and Wales, including pears, cherries and plums, had “disappeared”. Pretty bad.

But take away the numbers and the reality is worse. More than 81% of traditional orchards, like my grandfather’s, have disappeared. Been ‘lost’.

Some disappeared under the roads, others under the houses, and are remembered today only under a ghost name: Orchard Place, Pear Tree Avenue, Cherry Tree Way.

Last week the National Trust reported that 58% of orchards in England and Wales, including pears, cherries and plums, had ‘disappeared’

But too many orchards have been uprooted by the farmers themselves. When old-fashioned family farming died out, so did the old-fashioned orchard.

Until the 1950s, the farm’s orchard provided fruit to the family but also, most likely, cider to the workers.

‘Scrumpy’, as we in Herefordshire call the amber nectar of alcoholic apple juice, was part of the workmen’s pay, two liters a day per man, quenching their thirst at harvest.

I drank the stuff myself as a teenager around 1980, the midday brown bottle gifted by Farmer Frank as pungent in my mind as the accompanying first puff on a Players’ No 6 – the other necessity of break on the family of this time cultivate.

Not wanting to waste farm space, the former farmer placed cows, sheep, geese, pigs and chickens under the sprawling trees of the orchard.

In a virtuous triangle, cattle received fodder from fallen fruit while manuring the trees and providing natural pest control.

To pick the reddest apples from our family orchard, a child had to climb trees like a squirrel. Yours truly picked the apples in a handy Royal Mail canvas satchel, charmed by my father on the postman’s shoulder.

Too many orchards have been uprooted by the farmers themselves.  When old-fashioned family farming died out, so did the old-fashioned orchard

Too many orchards have been uprooted by the farmers themselves. When old-fashioned family farming died out, so did the old-fashioned orchard

The other apples were shaken to be picked up by a small army of family, friends and villagers.

Anything missing or pappy was left for Gloucester Old Spots, the quintessential orchard pork.

I don’t think it’s a simple pink memory trick to recall those dank September mornings of fruit picking like some kind of paradise.

The orchard was introduced to Brittany by the Romans, who imported cultivated apples.

This island nation has since developed a world record 2,300 apple varieties.

In spring, when the flower was bursting with white and pink, the same farm orchard was an enchanted garden.

The Japanese have a celebration, hanami, to mark the cherry blossom. A Herefordshire orchard in full bloom is no less worthy of reverence. It is important that people can enjoy the flowering of the orchards; it is a signal that spring has arrived.

In all four seasons, the traditional orchard, whether apples or pears, cherries or plums, was a haven for wildlife.

There were the trees themselves, homes for everything from long-eared owls to long-eared bats.

The flowers of the trees were for the butterfly in search of nectar, the slugs on the windfalls a feast for the badgers. In winter, the little creeper always found a piece in the bark of the Worcester Pearmain.

Livestock that grazed and gorged themselves under the spreading branches of trees produced poo galore; a single Hereford cow emits enough manure to feed two million insects a year, which explains why swallows swirled above my grandfather’s orchard.

Little or no pesticides were used. Contrast that with modern fruit growing in an intensive, tight, dwarf tree system with consistently applied chemicals.

Apples are among the most sprayed fruits in the UK and Europe. A study published in February by a French government agency determined that the average number of sprays per apple crop was 35.9.

Some of these chemicals are of concern to human health. Granted, they do little for bees and other pollinators on which agriculture depends.

If old orchards were so perfect for plums, why, you ask, did farmers get rid of them? Admittedly, pruning and picking were labor intensive, but the real problem was that the orchard was no longer useful.

Nobody made cider for their workers and it became easier to buy a jar of glazed cherries at Sainsbury’s than to pick and sweeten them yourself.

The orchard has become clumsily useless. Wheat could not be grown in the shade of trees, nor could grass for the cows – now kept in stables – be easily cut with a 10-metre-wide mower. Trees have hindered “progress”.

Therefore, the farm orchard was cut down. When this happened, the knowledge of folk songs and orchard customs, such as sailing, the blessing of trees on the twelfth night, increased.

Apples are among the most sprayed fruits in the UK and Europe.  A study published in February by a French government agency determined that the average number of sprays per apple crop was 35.9.  (file image)

Apples are among the most sprayed fruits in the UK and Europe. A study published in February by a French government agency determined that the average number of sprays per apple crop was 35.9. (file picture)

Traditional apple varieties were also lost; the buyer’s choice was narrowed down to imported Braeburn, Gala, Granny Smith and the mistakenly named Golden Delicious.

As some of us on the farm realized, getting rid of the old orchard was a bad decision.

If his trees produced apples with bumps and bumps, those deep flaws were more than made up for by an agricultural system that fed Shaun the sheep, Goosey Gander, and Little Red Hen for free.

In the old orchard the birds sang and the bees buzzed, unlike the monotonous, monotonous field that now sits in its place.

There are seeds of hope in the National Trust’s campaign to plant four million fruit trees by 2030. But why not plant and nurture a fruit tree yourself? You get the fresh, chemical-free fruits of your labor and nature becomes a home of choice.

Sometimes what’s best for birds and insects isn’t Britain’s fashionable ‘rewilding’, but the humane care of an apple tree. Like my grandfather’s orchard of sweet autumn memory. A British Eden.

The Sheep’s Tale, by John Lewis-Stempel, is published by Doubleday on April 7, priced at £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £11.69, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before April 3. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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