Silvopasture – growing tree crops, be it fruit, nuts or wood alongside grazing animals is nothing new. Examples can be found all over the world; from pigs foraging acorns in Portugal and Spain, to wood coppiced for growing mushrooms in Japan. In the regions where we at Fruits of The Forage pick our fruit, the remnants of these growing methods can still be found. Traditional orchards with trees tall enough for sheep to graze between, and the damson hedges which are found all over the UK are the most obvious local examples.
In the past the range of hedgerow crops picked to increase the income of small farms and rural folk was no doubt much wider; cobnuts, walnuts, herbs like nettle and watercress, hazel and willow coppiced to make baskets, pegs and firewood and of course all kinds of fruit to preserve – blackberries, rosehips, sloes, rowan berries and crabapples to name a few. These would all have been picked and used to supplement the income and enhance the diets of frugal country folk in the past.
A traditional Herefordshire cider apple orchard
Humans are not the only ones to benefit from this diverse range of crops though, rich habitats of productive orchards and hedgerows produce food and refuge for the whole wild food chain whilst providing vital links between real wild areas. In addition to the various other benefits such as preventing soil erosion, increasing soils capacity to store water and protecting the soil from the worst effects of drought.
Modern fruit growing has concentrated on increasing the quality of fruit for eating fresh by increasing the size and improving the colour of fruit. This has been achieved by growing on dwarf rootstocks planted at much higher densities and with higher inputs of chemicals. Whilst fruit growers have benefitted by being able to crop trees sooner after planting and making trees easier to pick and prune, wildlife has lost out.
Modern dwarf orchards offer little in the way of habitats for many of the organisms which can call a traditional orchard home. Fruit farmers are not to blame though, dwarf orchard growing techniques were first developed hundreds of years ago and the market has now come to demand fruits grown in this way.
Fruit grown for processing is a different story though. At Fruits of the Forage we value the hardy cooking fruits popular in the past. Cooking apples including both early codlins and late northern varieties, the almost forgotten cooking pears known in the past as wardens, damsons and hardy plum varieties classed in the past as “cooking grade”. These are all often much lower maintenance trees which can be grown with fewer inputs compared to modern varieties grafted onto dwarf rootstocks.
An hardy old cooking pear in Cheshire sheep grazed pasture
As the fruit is processed and not picked up by a consumer in a shop the fruits don’t have to be aesthetically perfect. Larger trees may be harder to pick but the processor has some advantages – if fruit can be processed within a few days trees may be shaken to speed up the picking of tall trees. This is standard practice in cider apple production. Inputs are also lower, grass is kept under control and the ground fertilized by grazing livestock, hardy old varieties have more resistance to pests and diseases, this coupled with lower planting densities makes the use of chemicals unnecessary.
Modern fruit growers may scoff at these ideas in the modern context where labour costs are much higher, and farming has generally turned to specializing in a few commodity crops. However, by planting a fruiting hedge within an arable landscape or a few acres of low density traditional orchard to allow sheep to graze between, a secondary bonus crop has effectively been created. Diversity – both biological and economical creates farms more resilient to fluctuating market prices, the effects of climate change and ecosystem collapse. Yes the monetary yields may not be huge compared to a farms primary crops but if they come hand in hand with huge benefits for the local environment then surely there is little to loose and potentially much to gain?
At Fruits of the Forage we are trying to revive some of these old traditions of growing fruit working with like minded farmers and landowners to plant fruiting hedges and traditional orchards within pastoral settings in the Northwest.