What's an orchard worth?

PUBLISHED: 09:48 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013

Apple Orchard

Apple Orchard

David Marshall was given the task of assessing the value of Herefordshire's orchards, not just to the economy, but in their impact on biodiversity, climate change, and on the lives of their neighbours. Here he reports on how the project worked, an...

David Marshall was given the task of assessing the value of Herefordshire's orchards, not just to the economy, but in their impact on biodiversity, climate change, and on the lives of their neighbours. Here he reports on how the project worked, and what it revealed. Photographs by David Marshall.

As a Herefordshire accountant, maybe it was inevitable that sooner or later I would end up counting fruit trees. We do, after all, have more orchards in this county than anywhere else in Britain, largely because of the success of the cider industry.

Yet when, two years ago, I was given the chance to lead the Herefordshire Orchard Community Evaluation project, I had little idea of what a privilege this was going to be.

The project was developed by the local sustainable development charity the Bulmer Foundation on behalf of Herefordshire's Orchard Topic Group, which represents a wide range of interests in orchards. We set out to understand the importance of orchards to Herefordshire by looking in detail at six orchards selected to represent the different types that are found here.

It was essentially an 'accounting' exercise, but we wanted to look well beyond the conventional profit to the farmer, to try to record and then attach a monetary value to the environmental, social and economic impacts of each orchard. The reason for this is that traditional accounting does not in fact register much of what is really important - something that Al Gore refers to as "accounting blindness". So, what would the 'accounts' of an orchard look like if we included such things as their impact on climate change, on the lives of people who live close by, and on natural biodiversity, and were then able to compare them in a consistent way?

This approach is pretty innovative and so we were learning as we went along. We were very fortunate that Bulmers enabled us to enlist the help of experts at the national sustainable development charity Forum for the Future, chaired by Jonathan Porritt, who lent their expertise and reviewed our findings.

It was wonderful to be given the excuse to spend a lot of time in six orchards - orchards are special places - and over the course of the project I developed a fondness for each one, as well as amassing a terrific amount of data. But looking back, the real privilege has been the people that I met.

The first farmer that I asked to participate in the project was John Harris, who is quite well known in the county as he sees the cattle lorries out of Hereford market on a Wednesday. John is a real gentleman who I had met a few months previously when, my wife and I having gone a bit astray on the Mordiford Loop walk, we saw him leaning on a farm gate and went over to ask directions, and got to talking about the apple harvest, as you do.

When I went to see him about the project he had little hesitation in allowing us to study his organic orchard at Henhope. It was a lot to ask the farmers who owned the orchards: not only did we need them to open their books to us, but we wanted a whole range of people to be allowed to trawl over their land. That the Jacksons at Glewstone, the Cotterells at Garnons, the Pudges at Castle Frome, Henry May at Tidnor Wood Orchards CIC and the Countryside Rangers looking after Bodenham Lake Nature Reserve as well as the Harrises at Priors Frome all did so willingly is testament to both their benevolence and courage.

I must say that natural species recorders seem to be far more enthusiastic about what they are doing than the average accountant! We are lucky to have so many local experts, who willingly gave their time to help us get a clear picture of the ecology of the orchards. With their help we looked at soil, worms, mesofauna (small creatures in the soil), fungi, plants and grasses, mosses, lichens, myxomycete (slime mould), trees, insects, butterflies, reptiles, mammals, birds and bats.

From subsoil to canopy, orchards form rich habitats and I reckon that collectively the volunteer recorders spent in excess of 250 hours at work. I was able to accompany most of them on visits, and it is quite interesting how this focuses attention on just one aspect - if you are with a moss expert you end up looking almost entirely at mosses. I have to admit that on the day when I was due to accompany local moss man Dr Jonathan Sleath on a visit I muttered cynically to my wife something about being in for a really scintillating morning....but Jonathan, who is a GP in Kingstone, turned out to be not only one of the foremost bryologists in the country and President of the British Bryological Society, but also extremely passionate, jumping up trees to spot different varieties with a vigour and enthusiasm that could only be infectious.

No report on the Herefordshire Orchards Community Evaluation project can be complete without mentioning the Golden eye lichen, Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, found in one of the orchards by Cliff Smith and Joy Ricketts. The lichen had been thought to be extinct in Britain and it was smashing to observe their incredulity at their find, the tentative wait for the record to be independently confirmed, and then the excitement in lichen circles. It amazes me that this small but, I must say, beautiful lichen made the press across the world - even being reported in the Iran Daily News. As an accountant, however, it also saddens me that we were unable to attract any dedicated funding from the conservation agencies to support the protection of the lichen and to compensate the farmer.

We invited people living close to each orchard to come to meetings to discuss what it meant in their community...and they came, maybe with slight trepidation, but appeared to go home afterwards having had an enjoyable evening. We explored and ranked the impacts - positive and negative - that the orchard has on their lives. People seemed to appreciate being asked their views, and had some intriguing personal stories; and some of the farmers were surprised at how important their orchard was seen to be.

Each one has its own distinct role for its neighbours, as an amenity, as a view, as a place to experience and conserve nature, and where they can witness a vibrant local economy. The conclusion of these discussions, and of the project as a whole, is that orchards have overwhelmingly positive impacts on Herefordshire life.

The project's findings were published on the web in September 2008, with Forum for the Future releasing a document at the same time entitled 'Windfall - putting a value on the social and environmental importance of orchards', which looks specifically at the rationale and methodology of the study.

Everyone who worked on the project has been gratified by the enthusiastic response. Natural England called it "A ground-breaking study of the multiple benefits of orchards to the environment, rural life and well-being". The National Association of Cider Makers said: "For the first time, the cider industry can properly demonstrate that the nation's orchards are worth so much more than their value to farmers alone." Forum for the Future said that the novel approach taken by the project "opens the door to better, more refined, approaches to resource-use decision making".

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