What is it?
Traditional orchards, although essentially a crop, can provide remarkable havens for wildlife. This is due to the longevity of individual trees, continuity of management, and low intensity use of the ground layer without chemicals. Trees were planted at low densities and orchards were grazed with livestock and cut for hay under the wide canopy. As a result, orchard grassland often includes abundant wildflowers while the trees themselves can have veteran features, including rot holes, split bark and hollow trunks – beneficial for fungi and invertebrates – and may be subtly coloured with a range of lichens. Modern orchards are quite different, with rows of low-growing, closely planted trees and short grassland.
Why is it like this?
Orchards were planted with domestic apple trees and other fruit and nut trees from Roman times onwards, and became a well-established feature of most farms in apple-growing country, both for the apples and for the cider, which formed a part of farm-worked wages. The rise of cheap supermarket imports and a drive toward intensification saw the demise of many orchards from the 1950s onwards, but more recently, appreciation of the social role of orchards, seen in the development of community orchards, and in local apple varieties, has reversed this trend.
Distribution in the UK
There are particular concentrations in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Kent.
What to look for
Look for mistletoe, a plant with much folklore attached to it, which also support its own invertebrate fauna including the mistletoe marble moth. Birds can include lesser spotted woodpecker, bullfinch, redstart and, in winter, fieldfare and redwing, while night time visits might reveal badger and hedgehog. For apple lovers, there are over two thousand different varieties of apple and 500 varieties of pear to spot.
Sensitive management includes careful pruning, allowing existing trees to age and planting replacements to ensure continuity.