Farmers are ripping up orchards because they are unable to afford to keep them, the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has said, in a major blow for biodiversity.
The increasing cost of labour and spiralling energy costs have meant fruit growers are removing trees from their land, Minette Batters said.
“This year there was a massive contraction for people not wanting to plant the orchards and ripping out old orchards because we wasted £60m worth of profit last year in the first six months of this year,” she said at a food security event this week.
“So we’ve got to have a major reset if we are going to continue to grow this incredibly important sector and we’re not going to have food shortages off the back of it.”
Orchards are now a very rare habitat in Britain, replaced by farms and urban development. England and Wales have lost 56% of their orchards since 1900. Traditional orchards have been hit particularly hard with a decline of 81%, equivalent to an area almost the size of the West Midlands.
As habitats they offer huge benefits for carbon sequestration and wildlife, particularly pollinators and birds.
Batters said the loss of the fruit trees was disastrous for biodiversity. “We want to see more orchards, but if you are there with an orchard that you haven’t been able to harvest the apples from, what are you meant to do?
“We should be really really encouraging buying British apples and pears and growing more of it here. Why would we not?”
Some farmers are keeping fruit trees on their land even if there is no immediate profit to be gained from them, because they improve biodiversity, carbon sequestration and soil health on their farms.
Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said farmers should not be ripping out old trees if they could avoid it.
“It’s important for biodiversity, but also the apples and pears we could use in the future,” he said. “The seed bank is really important, keeping older cultivars which could end up being more resilient as we face climate change, and if we rip out old orchards we risk losing that.”
Experts say the government should be compensating farmers for keeping their old orchards. Andrew Allen, the policy lead for land use at the Woodland Trust, said: “We need to manage land better for nature, combining it with productive farming. Traditional orchards are a particularly important example of this, offering a mosaic of trees, grasses, shrubs and wildflowers which make them ideal for wildlife.
“Halting the long-term decline in the number of traditional orchards is a litmus test of the government’s new [environmental land management] ELM scheme. It should not only discourage farmers from ploughing up traditional orchards but actively reward them for good management that benefits nature.”
Lines added: “Farmers need to see the economic benefit of keeping those trees. If they are facing soaring labour costs, energy costs, it is very difficult to keep them. Government needs to incentivise farmers to keep their orchards in these hard times or they will be lost.
“Farmers are currently making business choices. Because of the uncertainty within the marketplace and the supply chain, they are intensifying their farming system to get as much commodity out of the production. And I think that will lead into a continual decline in biodiversity.”
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “There ought to be continued support of orchards. Greater certainty would help enormously, the difficulty of this whole transition is that it is taking a very long time to do it. If there is an opportunity for someone to have some government support for helping the biodiversity in their traditional orchard then they should know about it sooner rather than later.”
Jake Fiennes, who manages the nature-friendly farming at Holkham nature reserve in Norfolk, argues that farmers who are unable to afford to pick the apples from their orchards should be paid to leave them to grow wild rather than uproot them.
He said: “A species of bird that has been in significant decline is the lesser spotted woodpecker. It has seen catastrophic declines over the last few decades. It is our smallest woodpecker, and it requires low intervention woodland. In abandoned orchards we are seeing increasing numbers of lesser spotted woodpeckers as there is no intervention, they have made a home there.
“Orchards, because they are full of flowers, they blossom, they have a range of biodiversity underneath them. When they are abandoned they become full of species. We need to figure out how land managers get value for those abandoned orchards.”