Saving 300 varieties of Britain's rarest cider apples should mean that cider not tasted for hundreds of years is possible. But the orchard is also set to benefit wildlife by being traditionally managed for our native species

The National Trust estate of Montacute House in the heart of Somerset, with its grand Elizabethan house and idyllic gardens and parkland, is a fitting site for an orchard of such significance.

Saplings with such wonderful names as Slack-ma-Girdle, Pig’s Snout and Sheep’s Head are being lovingly planted by dedicated volunteers 

It’s the perfect location for the trees, which are part of a historic collection of cider apples that have recently been donated to the Trust by Henry May, a collector of old varieties for 25 years.

There are almost 300 varieties here, some of which are incredibly rare and in danger of becoming lost forever. The orchard will hopefully ensure that this "national" collection is protected for future generations.

So two saplings for each variety will be planted over multiple Trust properties in the county they originated from where possible.

Simon Ford, the National Trust’s wildlife and countryside advisor for the south west, says, “Some of them are virtually gone, but there are some fantastic old historic names that make it quite exciting in itself.”

Saplings with such wonderful names as Slack-ma-Girdle, Pig’s Snout and Sheep’s Head are being lovingly planted by dedicated volunteers wrapped up against the elements.

It is hoped that in about seven years’ time the apples will be used to produce cider that may not have been tasted for hundreds of years, it’s an exciting prospect for everyone involved.

“The whole of this is very much about managing it for wildlife and landscape as well and particularly for the cultural history of these. Best of all, hopefully at the end of it we’re going to get cider from them; their original purpose.”

“That’s not the main driver though: the main driver here is conservation of these rare varieties,” he says.

But Mr Ford makes it very clear that it’s definitely not "plant and forget".

The orchards will be carefully managed and maintained. This obviously comes at a cost, but because each tree is enclosed it is hoped that sheep or cattle can be used to graze, and if not, a more expensive traditional style of hay meadow management will be employed.

Besides preserving these rare varieties from being lost forever (and hopefully the cider), wildlife and biodiversity are high on the agenda.

There’s going to be a whole variety of birds in the trees explains Mr Ford, from orchard specialists, such as bullfinches, to flocks of fieldfare and redwings.

But that’s not all we can expect as the orchard matures. Mistletoe is a classic of Somerset and Herefordshire and is a key plant for rare species itself, such as the mistletoe bug and mistletoe moth, both of which are incredibly rare. And older trees are really important for lichens and beetles such as the glossy green noble chafer.

And it seems fitting that with the promise of cider on the long term horizon, one plant they would love to attract here is the corky-fruited water-dropwort, a neutral grassland specialist that is currently found at the nearby National Trust garden at Tintinhull, which has similar conditions.

Each site will have full biological surveys, and not just of the orchard but the whole of the estate, allowing the Trust to monitor change and this is really important.

“One of the things I’d really like to see us do is some baseline surveys now, and going into the future look to see how it has brought in more wildlife.”

Members will be able to see the trees, their apples and all this biodiversity for themselves, as Mr Ford stresses that a gate will be put in and a winding path between the trees will be maintained, so visitors can get a view of a stunning Slack-ma-Girdle for themselves.

Listen to the views of some of the dedicated people who braved the wind and the rain to take part, and what being a National Trust volunteer means:

The future

Traditional orchards are now an incredibly rare sight; in the last 60 years a staggering 90% of them have been lost in the UK.

So it’s a nice surprise to find an already mature orchard also tucked away in the grounds of this stately home. It’s in here that you get a real sense of what area ranger George Holmes is planning for the future of the new orchard.

The distinctly old trees are covered in lichen and bear the weight of much mistletoe. And despite the dull grey sky, birds sing brightly and a green woodpecker sweeps between the trees. It is also home to greater spotted woodpeckers, a variety of owls and some very special small mammals.

“The trees we’ve just put in will be grown up for seven years and we’ll look after them, prune them when and where necessary, and in a few years’ time hopefully they’ll resemble the trees in here,” he says.

And given the proximity of the new orchard to this one, and others on the estate, it should be very easy for species to find their way over and for it to be buzzing with wildlife in a few years.

For Mr Holmes, traditional orchards present an amazing mosaic of habitats: hedges and walls that go around them; meadow in-between the trees, and the nooks and crannies in the trees themselves where blue tits nest and woodpeckers drum.

“It has a real range of homes for all different species.

Trying to re-establish them and bring them back is really important for conserving our orchards and looking after a real cultural and natural piece of heritage,” he says.

So in the years to come as we’re drinking the cider made from these historic apple trees, it’s good to know that the orchards have been managed for wildlife by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and very dedicated team.

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Jeremy Coles is a staff writer for BBC Earth. He is @jpcoles on Twitter.