Each year the tiny village of Much Marcle near Ledbury, Herefordshire, holds a weekend apple fest called ‘The Big Apple’. As well as being the home to Weston’s Cider there are many small apple growers in the area. During The Big Apple Weston’s and several of the smaller farms open their orchards to the public, where we can see the apples being pressed, quiz the experts and sample the juices and ciders. And as with all good fetes there is a plentiful supply of homemade cakes, pies and jams!
Of particular interest to us environmentalists was a walk and talk given by PhD student Charlotte Selvey at Greggs Pit. Gregs Pit is an organic orchard owned by James Marsden. James is a professional environmental consultant and assists a number of key environmental and wild life organisations. Charlotte is conducting research at Greggs Pit and several other orchards to quantify the effects of Ecosystem Services. Ecosystem services are benefits provided to agriculture by components of the ecosystem, e.g. bees and other insects provide pollination, fungi decay dead organic matter providing nutrients, earth worms burrow through the top soil providing drainage and aeration, etc. Wikepedia has a more detailed explanation outlining the four different types of service. But as agriculture becomes more intensive and chemically reliant it is destroying the ecosystem services it depends on. Charlotte’s research is aiming to quantify the effects of these ecosystem services so that their consequences on yield and profit are visible. It is encouraging that her PhD industry partner is PepsiCo who are looking at the effects of biodiversity along the length of the supply chain for their Copella brand of apple juice.
For the physical measurement of ecosystem services Charlotte is using some interesting methods. Hanging amongst the apple trees at Greggs Pit we saw little plastic, orange ‘houses’. Inside each house is a small vial of moth pheromone that will, depending on the pheromone, attract either male tortrix or codling moths, both of which damage apples. Unfortunately, instead of finding romance the males end up stuck on a sticky sheet of paper. At the end of the experiment the dead moths are counted and a comparison can be made between populations in biodiversity rich organic orchards and intensively managed orchards.
Charlotte also has scores of little plasticine green or white caterpillars stuck to the apple trees. Birds see these as food and peck at them. The nasty plasticine taste drives them away but by measuring the number of pecks Charlotte can gauge the number of predatory birds in the organic or intensively farmed orchards.
So far the research is showing that natural pest control in the organic orchards is matching the chemical control of the intensively farmed orchards! Very encouraging!
Within the orchards we passed some fallen trees and some trees were heavily laden with mistletoe and beginning to die. In a conventional farm these trees would have been removed for fear of harbouring pests and infections. But James explained that in an organic farm they encourage biodiversity, attracting predators which will also feed on bugs on the healthy trees.
I will enjoy my bottles of Much Marcle cider all the more now that I know that corporations such as PepsiCo are seeing the value in sponsoring ‘green’ science, a science that was once so belittled.
FOOTNOTE: Charlotte and her work are being featured on Countryfile on Sunday 30th October.