Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide
– from A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman, 1896
Orchards are not only beautiful, they are crucial to the preservation of large wildlife populations. Fringing the western shadow of the Malvern Hills, north from Ledbury to the Wyre Forest, there lies one of the largest, most aged deciduous woodlands in our country – the last remnants of the orchards which once covered England. It runs in the shadow of the Malverns for 80 kilometres, and it harbours an astonishing amount of wildlife.
By the time Housman was writing A Shropshire Lad, English orchards were already in decline. For 300 years apples had been grown for cider making. In 1664, John Evelyn described Herefordshire as ‘one entire orchard’ and most hedges were enriched with fruit trees. As woodland cover declined over the centuries, orchards provided new habitats for the tiny creatures which live in rotting fruit and decaying wood and support a rich food chain of mammals, birds, lichen and fungi.
The two authors of this book met when they were both working on Springwatch. Together they describe their year-long experience of a productive ancient orchard, managed with minimum intervention, and the diverse wildlife populations it supports, both resident and migrant. This orchard contains varieties of apple developed when cider-making was in its heyday, and now largely forgotten, but still used here to produce excellent cider. The apples still bear the names of the people who so carefully crafted them: Betty Prosser, Thorns; or the places they came from: Black Worcester pear or Kingston Black apple.
Between lyrical passages of landscape description, and careful explanations of the delicate balance of the ecosystems under scrutiny, we learn much about the teeming life of this ancient orchard, and the reason for the rapid collapse of populations exposed to intensive farming, pesticides and loss of habitat.
This book is a delight, and reminds us how much remains to us to cherish and protect, in the face of the many threats to our diminishing natural world.
Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden, by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates, William Collins 2020. ISBN 978-0-00-833373-7
Book review written by Pippa Stilwell, CFWI Climate Ambassador