That applies particularly to older, larger trees that have received relatively little hand-pruning and have tended to carry most of their crop on the outside of the canopy.
Sayell Equipment's David Sayell, who supplies mechanical pruning equipment, believes "this is the way that things are moving". The machines remove the outer canopy, thus significantly improving light penetration into the tree centres and increasing fruit bud numbers and quality.
The machines' cutting heads can be tailor-made to suit the size of the trees. The heads, powered by hydraulic motors, are fitted with anything from five to 18 circular-saw blades with a cutting width of about 2m to 4.8m. The heads are mounted on tractors or teleporters. The cost of the smaller machines is around £7,000 and the larger ones £9,000.
"We introduced the idea of pruning cider trees with multiple circular saws and it's taken about 10 years to reach the present stage," said Sayell, whose engineering business is based at Edenbridge, Kent. "The idea is now getting out to growers because their advisers are supporting it."
One cider contractor has been mechanically pruning an increasing orchard area over the past five years or so. He charges £90/acre and his machine prunes around 10 acres (4ha) per day.
"If the job is being done by hand you're talking about days per acre, rather than acres per day by machine," Sayell said.
He added that a number of growers producing dessert and culinary apples and pears are also using mechanical pruners. They remove the peripheral growth and then, every third year or so, the growers use chainsaws and electric secateurs to tidy up.