Every autumn, cider maker Hawkes asks Londoners to donate apples to its cidery under the railway arches in Bermondsey, just south of Tower Bridge. In normal times, people who drop off a box of russets or royals leave with a bottle of cider from last year’s crop. But 2020 has not been a normal year.
Through a trial delivery scheme to continue the exchange during the pandemic, 12 tonnes of apples have arrived at Hawkes in the post.
“It’s been absolutely mad,” says Elliot Allison, head of marketing for Hawkes. Hundreds of boxes from all over England were posted, enough to make cider from several regions, not just the capital, this winter.
“There’s something like 2 million apples every day in the UK that are left to rot, which is unbelievable. We did the cider maths, and we worked out that every second, about two and a half pints of cider go to waste,” says Allison.
“We had this box made which could take about 10kg of apples. We built a little website where people could put in the details, tell us what type of apples they’ve got, and then we would send them out a box. They would fill it up, and we paid for the postage to come back to us.”
Most of the apples that arrive at Hawkes come from standalone trees and small, traditional orchards, once a fixture in urban areas across the country. A feature of the British landscape that dates back to Roman times, these habitats have been in dramatic decline.
While counting methods vary, more than half of traditional orchards have disappeared in England since 1950, according to government figures: squeezed out by changing agricultural practices and development. Unlike their commercial counterparts, they often contain old trees where fungi and small mammals flourish and insects thrive because no pesticides are used.
The Orchard Project, which stands to benefit from the profits of Hawkes’ record cider donations, is trying to improve their miserable state in urban areas. Through a growing patchwork of traditional orchards, the organisation aims to make sure there is one within walking distance of every household in the UK.
In the gardens of former monasteries, on the edge of housing estates and in school grounds, the organisation is helping local people restore and create traditional orchards in Birmingham, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester. The Orchard Project has so far supported more than 430 projects. Cherry, damson, plum, apple and pear varieties are all popular alongside optimistic pomegranate and avocado trees. Nectarine and apricot are increasingly planted in the south of England in the heating climate.
“You’ve got cookers here. Look at the size of them,” says assistant site manager Michael Boase, twisting a huge apple off the branch and presenting it for inspection.
Boase delights in the early autumn bounty of almost every fruit tree, and 2020 has been a bumper year. We are just 10 miles from central London, surrounded by branches sagging under the weight of greengages, apples and pears. Every few steps, Boase recounts the history of the tree we are admiring, thrusting the occasional apple into my hands to taste.
A dozen or so volunteers have spent the morning washing, cutting and pressing this year’s apple harvest to make juice, a taste of nature on their doorstep that locals queue down the road to buy.
The community organisers help plan the layout, prune branches and water saplings. The plots need to be actively managed to establish a regular crop and stop the landscape slowly turning back into woodland.
“If you don’t prune your trees, they’ll slowly stop fruiting. They’ll go wild, they’ll stop fruiting or you get bad apples or get hundreds of little apples and not a decent apple that you can pick,” Boase explains as we continue our walk.
Freshly pressed apple juice and cider aside, the biodiversity benefits of traditional orchards are obvious as we stroll in the sun. Insects surround us, gorging on the fruit, while birds chortle in the trees nearby, waiting to pick them off. A 2006 survey of traditional orchards in Worcestershire recorded 1,868 species in just 5.39 hectares (13.3 acres), including rare mosses, lichens, vertebrates and invertebrates. Bats, beetles and fungi thrive in the gnarled bodies of vintage trees.
“Fruit trees have something called early senescence, which is an unusual quality. What it means is that by the time an apple tree reaches 50 years old it will already start showing veteran characteristics – things like cavities and standing deadwood. And those are really crucial to host invertebrates, which kind of makes the biodiversity world go round,” says Ella Hashemi, head of operations and programmes at the Orchard Project.
“That’s really different from planting something like an oak where it will take about 250 years to reach the same kind of stage of the tree’s life. If you have an orchard which is 50 years old, you’ll have these trees with cavities, they’ll be hosting hoverflies, they’ll be hosting rare fungus, there will be pollinators living in trees. It’s creating a habitat for other species, which is really needed as part of the ecosystem.”
Traditional orchards were designated a priority habitat in 2007 under the UK’s biodiversity action plan and have since been mapped in England and Wales. But their special status appears to have counted for little. Of the 17,486 hectares (43,210 acres) of traditional orchards in England, only about 14% are in a favourable condition. Nearly half are classed as “‘unfavourable” and “declining”. Almost no traditional orchards are in protected areas.
The National Trust has pledged extra resources to improve traditional orchards on its properties, and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species has collated a more extensive database to find out more information about their state. But many say they are best understood as a part of our national history that has been neglected.
Jonathan Staples, a park ranger at Ealing council who started the scheme at Horsenden Farm, believes there could be a renaissance of the traditional orchard after Covid-19 as people reconsider food production methods, including urban cider.
“When you look at maps of Ealing pre-1920s, orchards were everywhere. Huge amounts have been taken out for various reasons, probably mostly housebuilding,” he says. “For that reason alone, to be able to bring some back on a small scale is massively important.”