Since the summer day, in the 1970s, when my mum bought me half a pint of Woodpecker cider to keep her noisy child quiet in a pub garden and then hours spent scrumping in the orchards of Kent as a teenager, I have loved apples and the orchards where they grow.

A childhood of sunny walks and bike rides with friends took us on adventures through acres of traditional and bush orchards that were bathed in blossom. It then carpeted the grass beneath our feet as the fruit set on the branches above and the trees ripened their juicy gems ready for us to gorge ourselves in the autumn. We never learned restraint but enjoyed the harvest every year despite the aching tummies.

Orchards are a valuable component of the landscape and play an important role in providing both a habitat for its wildlife as well as an income and resource for its residents. Under the recent pandemic restrictions, I have also seen how important orchards have been to the wellbeing and mental health of many people where they have acted as a sanctuary from the pressures of life and a place to relieve anxiety. Whole communities have been very grateful for the escape that orchards in their local area have given them throughout this stressful time.

Orchards clearly contribute positively to our lives and health right now, but with COP26 just around the corner and following a summer of extreme weather events across the globe, I have also wondered whether orchards can survive the looming climate crisis or maybe even help us to stop it? Can they be climate heroes of the future?

In April Natural England released an interesting report (NERR094) that looked at the potential carbon storage and sequestration of different habitats that covered both traditional and intensive orchards.

They identified:

  • traditional orchards as having low intensity management, widely spaced trees and permanent grassland grazed by livestock or cut for hay
  • intensive orchards with densely planted short-lived dwarf or bush trees with a ground surface mown or managed with herbicides
  • both are important for carbon storage and sequestration as they are often concentrated within landscapes and cover significant areas

Firstly, there is hope! The report proposes that ‘traditional orchards are considered to have low sensitivity to climate change.’ Fruit trees can be sensitive to drought, rising temperatures and storms but their careful management can help reduce these effects. Apple trees can be found thriving in a variety of climates, latitudes and altitudes across the planet and their resilience and adaptability is one of the reasons why they are important to a host of different cultures and communities globally.

So, can they suck up the carbon from all those cars? Orchards store carbon in above ground biomass as well as in the soil. Traditional orchards store more carbon in their large woody trees than intensive orchards which are grown for their fruit, not their woody growth but intensive orchards capture more carbon annually because of their yearly rapid growth, youth and density per hectare. However between 40–70 per cent of captured carbon is released each year by the fruit harvest and long-term more is released by very regular pruning and trees with a short life span.

On balance, above the ground, intensive orchards are considered net sequesters of carbon over their productive lifetime. Some traditional orchards can actually release more carbon than they capture overall due to their slower growth as the trees get older but they play important long term roles in protecting existing carbon stocks and harbouring a vast wealth of biodiversity in their associated flora and fauna.

In the soil, traditional orchards hold larger stocks of carbon than intensively managed orchards as they are disturbed less and there is limited use of herbicides, which can reduce soil health. But again it seems that intensive orchards can capture more carbon year on year when they are growing quickly as traditional orchards may have reached an equilibrium.

There is much more research needed to gain a completely accurate picture of how orchards can be climate heroes, but the current evidence clearly shows that they have a role to play. It’s important that a landscape approach is taken as it seems that traditional orchards are important as a carbon store and refuge for future biodiversity whereas new or densely planted young orchards can capture more of the carbon that we produce. A mosaic approach of a range of orchards of different ages and planting densities across the landscape will give us the best chance to maximise the potential for orchards to capture and store the most amount of carbon as possible.

Orchards really can bring benefits to us all now and for the future.

Traditional orchard at Burrow Hill, Somerset