News and blog Friday's Farming Thoughts Entry #19 - Bea Oliver: Orchards as Common Ground I read an article recently about the Affric Highlands scheme, a collaboration between large landowners and a rewilding charity to rewild half a million acres in north-western Scotland. I was not surprised to read that the success of the collaboration has been put down to those with the rewilding agenda approaching landowners as though they were dating; with a genuine curiosity and willingness to listen. It’s something that FWAG SouthWest advisers seem to have worked out for themselves. By listening, conversations about ecological restoration could be had based on common ground. In the case of the Affric Highlands scheme, this was the integration of people back into the landscape. Achieving the thriving rural economy that people want requires the creation of sustainable jobs that attract young families back to the area. In areas such has the Highlands, rewilding can sustain 50% more jobs than intensive farming. But how is a vast Highlands rewilding scheme relevant in the Southwest? The whole of Dartmoor is less than half that area. The answer links two books I have been reading recently that have really sparked my imagination. The first is about access to land. The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes is on the face of it just that: a man trespassing on mainly aristocratic estates. He does so to tell the tale of each estate’s history, thereby weaving together the history of land enclosure – often of common land. However, in the penultimate chapter, Hayes points out that nothing is to be gained by either party – the landed and the landless – making bogeymen of each other. Each must seek common ground – in purpose if not ideology – to achieve benefits for the common good. The second book is Orchard by the birder Ben Macdonald and wildlife photographer Nicholas Gates. Together, the two authors trace the seasons of one old orchard below the Malvern Hills by describing its – now uncommonly – bountiful wildlife. Hornets (apparently a peaceable genus!), woodpeckers and spotted flycatchers are the rare and acrobatic stars in this oasis among mono-cropped arable lands. Orchards, it seems, could be to lowland West Country as rewilded heath is to Highland Scotland: a chance to massively increase biodiversity and, done carefully, to bring more people and productivity into the bargain. Seventy-five per cent of Gloucestershire’s orchards have been lost in the last 50 years, likely because they can’t be harvested mechanically and so are costly to manage. Yet traditional orchard management remains one of the few agricultural practices that can both benefit from and offer benefit to community groups: tasks can be taught in a fairly short time, can be done in fewer short bursts by groups of people of mixed age, fitness and experience, and with volunteer labour can produce a profitable output (a portion of which can be enjoyed at a post-picking party as a reward!). The question I have been pondering is ‘how could we make it happen?’ As Nick Hayes finds to his dismay when he approaches the largest landowner in the area of his upbringing, those with power are usually those with the means to set the terms of a conversation. Locals are unlikely to demand access to land for communal gatherings, or often even for educational visits; most people have accepted that common land for common gathering is by-and-large a thing of the past, so if it happens it is offered by those with the means to offer it, often for a fee. By offering up the management of traditional orchards – old and new – to their local community, land managers have an opportunity, if they so wish, to change the terms of the conversation to one of local supply chains, wildlife bounty, and community connection – literally offering common ground with their neighbours. A commercial transaction is replaced by a vernacular economy that offers space for society (with a small ‘s’) and wildlife alongside productivity; a triangle of reciprocity where everyone can be a winner. Luckily, there is a national network of community-managed orchards with deep expertise in collaborative management models to make sure the triangle balances out. Practical support and boundless local wisdom are available from the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust and Devon’s Growing Orchard Communities project. The project that I manage, The GREAT Project, can fund free advice and enterprise training, offer bursaries for courses and small grants for essential bits of kit to farmers and growers in Gloucestershire. And, of course, there are always FWAG advisers who will come with their best dating-style listening curiosity to find common ground: that’s how we can make it happen.