Mother-loving Moths and Bastard Bloody Pigeons

As an orchardist I try very hard to be as environmentally responsible and work as Organically (with a capital ‘O’) as possible. I don’t spray the trees in the #Plot 79 orchard (or anywhere else) with insecticides, because toxic chemical compounds don’t discriminate between friend and foe. And I don’t try to net the trees against birds, which would risk trapping them and, to be honest, would be impractical anyway due to the size that some of the trees have now grown to, and the general windiness of the site.

Sometimes though, I just wish that the environment would cut me some slack in return. On an inspection of the trees earlier in the week, I noticed that a lot – and I do mean a lot – of the apples that have set this year have been infested with codling moth larvae. The symptoms are the classic ones: bore-holes, usually at the eye of the fruit, with piles of frass (droppings) spilling out; tunneling and maggots within. This sort of damage often leads to internal rot and, at the very best, spoiled fruit that has to be trimmed and chopped before cooking and can’t be easily eaten fresh off the tree.

As for the pigeons, well, they’ve clearly decided to start sampling the fruit early this year. I’m seeing a lot of predation wounds, the majority of which look like they’re too large to have been caused by a sparrow or tit, and too narrow to have been caused by a squirrel. Wounds like this:

And these:

And these (the apple at top-right has a double-whammy of bird and moth larvae damage):

All of the fruits above are useless now. It’s early in the season, so they’re too small and sour, and too likely to be rotten to the core already, to be worth saving; well on their way towards a future that holds nothing but full-scale brown rot, like this:

And I’m seeing the same damage repeated all over the orchard, which is… disheartening, to say the least.

There’s not an awful lot that the environmentally-responsible orchardist can do against moth larvae. There’s a bit of a mis-apprehension that grease-bands will stop female moths from climbing up into the trees in the dormant season, but they only work against almost-wingless winter moth females[1], whereas codling moth females can and will just fly up into the trees. And the pheromone traps that are sold as a ‘control’ for codling moth are really just an early-warning system. They’ll trap a few of the adult moths, which then lets you know that they’re active… so you can start spraying with insecticide. Unless you use a mass-trapping system that requires a lot of expensive traps; not financially practical on a small-orchard scale. Again, not an option if you’re trying to grow Organically[2]. Unless you use a mass-trapping system that requires a lot of expensive traps, which isn’t going to be financially practical on a small-orchard scale.

Pigeons-wise, our allotment site is surrounded by houses so it’s effectively an urban setting, which means a lot of rock pigeons and the occasional wood pigeon, maybe even a racing pigeon, but hardly any pigeon-predators to keep their numbers down, the occasional overly-ambitious tabby aside. I could try a floating eyeball, or a fake raptor on a wire, or even good old CDs-on-a-string, but I’ve read that pigeons eventually learn to ignore this sort of thing if they don’t actually get attacked by them. And again, the site is so windy that I’d likely just end up donating whatever bird-scaring device I try to use to one of the gardens that surround the site.

All I can really do is take solace in the fact that last year was an excellent year for apples, even allowing for the fruit we lost to the same pest problems. This year overall fruit set is down (for perfectly natural reasons), so the fruit we’re losing represents a higher proportion of the total crop, which is why it’s so annoying, but that doesn’t mean that next year won’t be another great one.

One thing you definitely learn as an Organic Orchardist is to roll with the punches. I’ll just have to let the mother-loving moths and bastard bloody pigeons have their food-source – they’re only doing what nature has evolved them to do, after all – and take solace in what un-damaged fruit I can harvest later in the year.

How about you? Do you run an Organic orchard or do you spray the hell out of everything? Are you seeing similar levels of pest problems this year? Do you have any tried-and-tested (as opposed to received wisdom) remedies for either moth infestation or pigeon predation? Please do let me know, or just leave a few words of solace if you prefer, via the comments…

Image credit (pigeon pic): Dori, CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons


1 The damage done by winter moth larvae is very different, too: they hatch out as caterpillars and eat leaf buds and young leaves in spring, leading to defoliation rather than fruit damage. The tunneled-into apples, that’s all Codling (the name even comes from ‘Codlin’, which is an old name for a type of cooking apple suitable for gentle boiling).
2 I recently read Tales From an English Orchard by Stephen Hayes. In the book he tells the story of how he and his wife followed their dream and set up an Organic orchard in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One of the first things he learnt was that it’s really bloody difficult to be an Organic orchardist if you actually want to sell your apples at market, because no-one will buy fruit that’s even slightly blemished or mis-shapen. So he was forced to abandon his organic principles and start spraying or see his orchard business go under…


  1. For my apples orchard, I love a book that is the backbone of my orchard management knowledge ( ..codling moth…). There is a wealth of information in the 343 pages. It is ‘The Apple Grower. A guide for the Organic Orchardist’ by Michael Phillips. He is in America but climatic, disease variables etc considered, apples are apples. This is holistic IPM for year around apples. I thoroughly recommend it to any hobby or small commercial grower. He has a book on other fruit orcharding, which is also great. Chelsea green. Happy growing : )

    1. Hi Amanda – Thank you very much for the recommendation. As it happens, I was given a copy of The Apple Grower for Xmas and it’s almost reached the top of my epic to-be-read pile, so I’ll hopefully be studying it shortly. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from various people, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. Cheers!

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