Traditional orchards

Traditional orchards are usually managed in a low-intensity way, with limited use of pesticides and fertilisers. The trees are often old and left in situ as opposed to commercial orchards where trees are often replaced on a relatively short rotation. These areas have been planted and managed over centuries, providing crops of fruits and nuts, as well as meadows and grazing pasture.

What

Traditional orchards are areas of planted fruit, and occasionally nut trees in permanent grassland. Lower planting densities means that trees are often open grown and exposed to plenty of air and light. As such they resemble and mimic wood pasture or woodland edge habitats. Traditional orchards may be managed for fruit and/or grazing livestock.

Traditional orchards are often planted with varieties of fruit that are selected to suit the soil and other environmental conditions of the local area. This means they can often contain trees with important local heritage.

The most important habitat for wildlife is usually the old fruit trees, but traditional orchards often contain a mosaic of associated habitats including unimproved grassland, scrub, ponds and hedgerows. The association of veteran trees with a range of habitats is what can make these sites so valuable for wildlife.

Fruit tree blossom Anna Broszkiewicz

Why

Traditional orchards are rare and threatened habitats. Their varied, often unimproved nature provides a home for a large number of species including fungi, mosses, ichens and invertebrates which live on the older trees. These habitats also provide very valuable nesting, roosting and foraging sites for bats and birds. The number of traditional orchards has declined substantially, with losses continuing in recent years and their conservation is a high priority . A study by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species revealed that 90% of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950s.

Traditionally, orchards were often among the more fertile grasslands on a farm. They were often used for sheltering stock which in turn enriched the soil. They may have had top dressings of manure to maintain fruit production, however the grasslands in many traditional orchards have been undisturbed for decades, if not centuries, and have escaped agricultural improvement. Consequently they may well be rich in grassland fungi so it is worth looking out for waxcaps and other grassland fungi in the autumn and taking part in Plantlife’s Waxcap Watch.

Unlike other hardwoods, fruit trees are generally short-lived. This means that they begin to produce veteran tree features such as hollow trunks and rot holes relatively quickly, and these are so valuable to many wildlife species. As a result, it is vital that older individual trees are conserved, whether standing or fallen, as these support the most wildlife. Dead or dying wood supports rare invertebrates (including beetles, flies and spiders) and fungi such as bracket fungi. Other invertebrates use different parts of the trees including water-filled holes and sap runs. Noble Chafer beetles, a traditional orchard specialist, use rotten wood in orchards to breed, and hole-nesting birds such as woodpeckers use the old trees.

Traditional orchards can be prime habitat for bats, with some of the UK’s rarest and most range- restricted species such as the Greater Horseshoe Bat using holes or crevices in old trees to roost in. More widespread species such as Soprano Pipistrelle and Brown Long-eared Bats also use these trees as a valuable roosting resource, whilst all bat species can use this habitat for feeding.

Associated habitats including grasslands, ponds, hedgerows and taller grown patches of bramble and herbs support a much wider range of plants, fungi (for example waxcaps) invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. A variety of nectar sources are also essential for the adult stages of many ‘saproxylic’ species – those that depend on dead or dying wood for at least part of their lifecycle.

Traditional orchards provide important feeding and nesting opportunities for wild bees and other flower-visiting insects. Wild bees are essential pollinators of orchard trees with solitary bees contributing over twice as much to pollination services of apples as domestic honeybees (see reference). Mason bees (Osmia) and mining bees (Andrena) in particular are significant pollinators of apple and other fruit trees and bumblebees are also important pollinators. These bees collect dry pollen in brushes of hair rather than lumps of damp pollen therefore they are effective distributers of pollen from flower to flower. Hoverflies, also feed from the flowers of fruit trees with the larvae of many species feeding on aphids. As many pollinators only travel short distances, having a diversity of flowering habitats within close proximity of the orchard, be this flower-rich grassland below the canopy, hedgerows or wet features, means these insects have sufficient resources to support them from spring through to autumn.

Many solitary bees, solitary wasps, beetles and other insects nest in areas of bare soil, especially on warm, south-facing banks. Bumblebees and other insects can be encouraged by leaving banks or hedges with undisturbed areas of long grass which provide nesting and overwintering habitat. These longer, uncut margins can be rotated annually so that there are always long overwintering habitat available.

European hornet Vespa crabro, nesting in a tree in an orchard, Essex, September

How

Although the priority for traditional orchards is to conserve the older trees and protect them from damage by grazing animals, fertilisers and pesticide applications, orchards are best managed as a whole.

Much orchard wildlife depends on the mosaic of habitats such as dead wood, scrub, hedgerows, unimproved grassland and ponds. If present, these features should also be maintained and if not, adding these features where practical would be beneficial to local wildlife and the health of the orchard.

Management of Trees

It is beneficial to maintain a full age range of orchard trees with older ones allowed to age and die naturally. Trees with veteran features such as hollow trunks and rot holes provide the most important habitat, but younger trees are important to maintain continuity. A regular programme of planting young trees to create/maintain a varied age range should be put in place. Ivy and other climbers such as Honeysuckle are valuable for a range of species and ideally should be left, unless it is causing a problem for the tree or species of special interest such as epiphytic mosses.

Any tree health problems need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The application of chemicals to control pests and diseases should be minimal and their use should be the exception rather than the rule.

Fertiliser and other inputs

The use of fertilisers and herbicides should be avoided where possible. This is especially true in habitats which have not previously undergone these agricultural practices, as they will be damaging to plants, soil invertebrates, and fungi, including rare waxcaps which appear in autumn.

It is recommended to not apply fertilisers near any tree roots and to have a buffer zone wider than the overhanging canopy around trees to prevent spray drift. Following this guidance, it should not be possible to spray chemicals in a well-stocked traditional orchard.

Management of the orchard floor

As with all grassland habitats, management is required to prevent succession to scrub, and an eventual return to woodland. Grazing needs to be done in such a way that that appropriately manages the grassland but prevents damage to trees There is a risk of grazing livestock causing heavy compaction under trees, rubbing or eating of bark (especially in winter months), so care is needed. It may be necessary to protect trees from grazing animals if they are likely to browse or bark strip trees.

Ideally, grazing or cutting should be managed in ways to create a range of sward heights and vegetation structure, including short-grazed areas, small patches of bare soil and some tussocks. This will provide habitat for a wide range of plants, fungi, invertebrates and other wildlife. This can be achieved by seasonal extensive grazing. It will be particularly beneficial to avoid grazing in the spring to allow plants to flower.

Large machinery should ideally be avoided to prevent harm to the shallow roots of fruit trees through compaction and mechanical damage. They can also disturb invertebrates, damage ant hills and, depending on the time of year, affect nesting birds or destroy fallen fruit that would be eaten by birds through the winter.

Neglected and under-grazed orchards quickly become invaded by bramble and other scrub species. These species overwhelm and shade out the rich diversity of lichens and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) that can develop on the trunks of fruit trees, as well as shading out the surrounding grassland flora and enriching the soil. However, scrub can be an important wildlife habitat too. Rather than clearing it entirely, some patches could be maintained where they can be easily managed, such as along hedgerows and in field corners.

Flowering plants within the grasslands, along with trees, scrub, ivy and ‘weedy’ areas all provide valuable nectar sources for insects. Relaxing grazing or not cutting between April and September ensures plants can flower benefiting insect pollinators. Areas of flowering scrub (such as bramble, hawthorn and sallow) are also essential for pollinators, as well as providing nest sites for birds and shelter and overwintering sites for reptiles and amphibians.

It may be appropriate to create or recreate ponds in naturally wet areas, but care should be taken not to impact fruit trees or areas of species-rich grassland.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe has long been associated with traditional orchards and its presence should be maintained or introduced. It is semi-parasitic, taking water and nutrients from the tree and photosynthesising its own food. It hosts six specialist insects found on no other plants, four bugs, a weevil and a moth. Mistletoe berries provide a valuable winter food source for birds, which in turn help to spread the seeds by wiping their beaks on the rough bark after eating the berries.

Mistletoe can be spread artificially using the same approach, smearing the berry and seed onto a branch of at least 20mm in diameter, in late winter. Since Mistletoe has separate male and female plants, several plants are required to guarantee future berries.

European robin Erithacus rubecula, adult perched in apple tree with food for it's young in its beak, RSPB The Lodge Nature Reserve, Bedfordshire, May

More information

Links:

Managing traditional orchards – People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) Orchard project

Planting a new orchard - PTES

An Introduction to Orchard Management - Farm Garden booklet  

Reference: Garratt 2016. Apple Pollination: Demand Depends on Variety and Supply Depends on Pollinator Identity

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