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Orchards are so rich in biodiversity, they eclipse most recognised conservation areas. Spend a year in one orchard, and celebrate this imperilled, overlooked abundance of life.
As rotting windfall apples and frost lie thick on the ground, and the oldest of fruit trees bend under the weight of mistletoe, the orchard begins a new year.
A chattering blanket of starlings descend on the bounty of last year's fruit, joining bramblings, blackbirds, angry-faced waxwings and intoxicated fieldfares who, drunk on fermented berries, fight one another over their rotting real estate. Even in winter, the orchard is a place of bounty, competition and continuous surprise, most of whose secrets lie hidden deep below the surface.
As the seasons turn, a wealth of animals and plants are revealed: Bumble and solitary bees apartment-hunting in April; spotted flycatchers migrating in May; redstarts, hedgehogs and owls nesting in June; an explosion of life in the summer and the harvest and homespun cider-making in the autumn. And all throughout the year, the orchard's human and animal inhabitants work together, creating one of the richest ecosystems left in Britain.
Their ancient tradition of collaboration between people and nature makes orchards a source of hope for the future. If we can bring new life to Britain's orchards – favouring organic methods and harvesting with a balanced ecosystem in mind – not only wildlife but people will have a far richer Britain to profit from in the centuries to come.
Benedict Macdonald is a conservation writer, field director in wildlife television and a keen naturalist; passionate about restoring Britain's wildlife. He is a long-time writer for Birdwatching magazine, as well as a contributor to the RSPB Nature’s Home and BBC Wildlife. He has been fortunate to work on TV series for the BBC and Netflix – most notably the grasslands and jungles programmes of Sir David Attenborough's conservation series Our Planet, broadcast worldwide on Netflix in April 2019.
Nicholas Gates is a naturalist, producer, vlogger and writer based in Bristol. He has a passion for conservation and rewilding, and for inspiring people to care for the natural world. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and when he’s not taking photos, he can be found working in his urban wildlife reserve garden, or with his chickens.