The UK was once rich in small orchards, most of them centuries old and clustered around farmsteads and farmhouses, cottages and rectories. Since the late 1950s we have lost 90% of these traditional orchards, partly as a result of changes in farming practice, partly because of consumer preference for imported fruit and partly through land being sold off for housing development. Fewer than 60,000 acres are now left, making the traditional orchard one of the rarest of all habitats. Lincolnshire has fared especially badly, with only an estimated 303 acres remaining.
The fact orchards were unploughed and left largely undisturbed allowed a distinctive natural environment to develop and flourish. Those, like Waterfurlong, that have escaped commercial cultivation are particularly rich in wildlife, containing a unique mosaic of habitats: the fruit trees themselves, other deciduous trees, hedgerows, the orchard floor, ponds, ditches and fallen logs. Traditional orchards also hold the main genetic resource of old, local fruit varieties that have otherwise virtually disappeared.
A 2004 study identified 1,800 species across the plant, fungus and animal kingdoms in less than 6 acres of traditional orchard in Worcestershire’s Wyre Valley. A 2009 Natural England follow-up survey looked specifically at the mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi and invertebrates in six different English orchards. Across these groups, researchers discovered a total of 810 species. Each site proved rich in nationally rare and scarce species, some of them unique to traditional orchards.
Old orchards usually contain a mix of fruit species and varieties, with most trees typically between 60 and 100 years old. Although apples can sometimes live for more than 200 years and pears 400, fruit trees age more quickly than other deciduous species, rapidly developing ‘veteran’ features such as rot holes, hollows, fissures, sap runs, lightning damage and ‘stag’s head’ crowns of dead branches, all of which support rare wildlife, including saproxylic insects that feed on the decaying heartwood.
Beetles, Birds and Bats
Fungi begin to break down the fruit tree’s internal wood, which is then colonised by bark beetles. These in turn loosen the bark, creating a habitat for species such as the cardinal beetle, the nocturnal darkling beetle, the ruby-tailed wasp and over-wintering ladybirds. Ultimately, the rotted heartwood turns to wood mould, in a handful of orchards attracting one of the UK's rarest insects, the iridescent, emerald-green, noble chafer beetle. Apple trees are particularly rich in invertebrates, with a wide variety feeding on the foliage. Lacewings, small soldier beetles and hoverflies all play their part in the orchard’s ecology.
Fungi, Mosses and Liverworts
Heartwood decay fungi, such as chicken-of-the-woods, the weeping bracket and very rarely, the orchard tooth crust, are another feature of old orchards. These fungi do not harm the tree and the hollowing they cause is probably of benefit by recycling nutrients and improving resistance to strong winds.
Many mosses and liverworts are unique to orchard trees, especially apple and pear. These provide food and shelter for a range of invertebrates as well as nesting material for birds. The lichen species in any orchard depend on the age and position of the trees, the local climate and the level of air pollution. Different fruit trees and varieties support different lichen communities; for example, dessert apples tend to be richer in lichens than cookers and plum trees support many acid-loving lichens.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Old orchards prove a surprisingly rich habitat for amphibians if there are ponds or streams nearby. Frogs and toads are commonplace and colonies of the endangered great crested newt have occasionally been discovered in orchards that can provide ponds for breeding, rough grassland for foraging and fallen logs for shelter.
Adders, grass snakes, common lizards and slow worms are all associated with traditional orchards, which offer a rich variety of food sources and ideal hibernation sites in compost heaps and wood piles.
The Orchard Year
In spring the fruit blossom is a valuable source of nectar for bumblebees and a wide range of pollen-feeding beetles. The now rare bullfinch has long been associated with old orchards, turning to the flower-buds of fruiting trees when its winter supply of seeds runs low. Ungrazed orchards were traditionally underplanted with spring bulbs, such as daffodils and snowdrops - important sources of nectar in the early months of the year.
In summer the dappled shade of the orchard canopy attracts shade-tolerant butterflies, such as the speckled wood and orange-tip. Butterflies are good indicators of biodiversity; a fragile group, they are highly sensitive to environmental changes, so the relative stability and tranquillity of the orchard habitat suits them and plays an important role in many species’ survival.
The grassland of the orchard floor is rich in early summer flowers such as red campion, yellow rattle, oxeye daisy and scabious and alive with grasshoppers and crickets. Many butterflies, such as the gatekeeper and marbled white, feed on the longer grasses whilst bee, spotted or pyramidal orchids can be found on some sites in June and July.
Windfall fruits in autumn attract butterflies, sap-feeding beetles, wasps and mammals. Many traditional orchards contain badger setts and visiting foxes will sometimes reach up to pick fruit from low-hanging branches. Fungi like waxcaps, puffballs and field mushrooms emerge on the orchard floor.
In the winter months northern visitors, such as redwings and fieldfares, arrive in flocks to feed on the remaining fallen fruit, whilst log piles and hedgerows provide ideal hibernation sites for many mammals, insects and reptiles.
Tall hedgerow trees offer yet more habitat variety; for example, tawny owls like to roost in their branches and ash keys provide winter food for bullfinches.
Hedgerow margins are an important summer habitat for hedgehogs, who later hibernate in the log and leaf piles typically found in old orchards. Mice, voles and other small mammals live at the hedgerow base, particularly where there is close access to long grass. These, in turn, attract birds of prey such as owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks.
Despite its peace and tranquillity, an old orchard buzzes with life.
This abundance of insects attracts numerous bats and birds, sometimes including endangered species such as the soprano pipistrelle, the greater horseshoe bat, the lesser spotted woodpecker and the flycatcher.
Dry rot holes provide ideal nesting sites for woodpeckers, nuthatches, treecreepers and various tits, as well as a habitat for wood-feeding insects such as longhorn, stag and rhinoceros beetles. Wet rot holes are a separate habitat in their own right, attracting insects like hoverfly larvae. Tangled, dead branches in the tree canopy provide ideal nesting conditions for chaffinches and mistle thrushes.
The hedges surrounding orchards not only protect fruit trees from frost and wind damage, but are a wildlife habitat in their own right. Shrubs such as hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, spindle and wild cherry offer nesting and foraging sites for a wide range of scrub-dwelling birds, including dunnocks, song thrushes, long-tailed tits, wrens, linnets, warblers and chiffchaffs, as well as shelter for hibernating bumblebees. Cob nuts provide winter food for the nuthatch and occasionally the endangered dormouse.
Many beetles which start life as larvae in fruit-tree wood feed on hawthorn blossom and hedgerow flowers like wild carrot and angelica. Honeysuckle is an important food source for night-flying species such as the elephant hawk moth, while the caterpillar of the endangered Duke of Burgundy butterfly feeds exclusively on primrose and cowslip leaves.
For decades this decline went unrecognised, but in 2007 Natural England responded to mounting concern by granting traditional orchards priority habitat status in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
Natural England awarded our
Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens traditional orchard status in 2017. Our reference in the priority habitat inventory is
LINC0735 and our site is rated as 'excellent'.
For priority habitat purposes, traditional orchards are defined as groups of fruit and nut trees planted on vigorous rootstocks at low densities in permanent grassland and managed in a low intensity way with minimal use of chemicals.
Which species live in the Waterfurlong Gardens?
We have surveyed many of the gardens’ fruit trees and so far, 45 heritage apple varieties and four pear varieties
have been discovered, some of them extremely rare. Most of our trees appear to be between 70 and 150 years old and many bear important veteran features.
We will be resuming our Waterfurlong tree survey this autumn and have meanwhile begun surveying our birds, flowers, butterflies, beetles and other species.
Keep up-to-date with our findings by following our blog, The Plot Thickens.
Mistletoe is a traditional winter feature of old apple orchards, particularly in the west of England. It is a semi-parasitic plant which hosts its own suite of endangered species, including the mistlet thrush, the mistletoe marble moth, and the mistletoe weevil. The berries are also an important winter food source for the blackcap.
Learn more about traditional orchards and how you can help save them by visiting the People's Trust for Endangered Species.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018