The Orchard Path

Orchards and Wild Life

Had our forbears set out to create havens for wild life, they could hardly have bettered traditional orchards. 'Domesticated', deliberately shaped by human ambitions, old orchards may be - but they're no less wild for all that.

Nature revels in the sheer variety of these places - orchards defy tidy categorisation. Neither woodland, grassland, hedgerow or wood pasture, they rarely feature in habitat surveys. Yet the wonder of these places stems from the fact that they can be all these habitats at once. At their best, orchards offer a patchwork attractive to everything from beetles and bats to badgers and butterflies. On the scaly bark of old Bramley trees in No Man's Orchard, Kent's first Community Orchard, sharp-eyed botanists have spied at least 33 species of lichens and mosses - a world in miniature that testifies to the wholesome air enjoyed by walkers on the North Downs Way, as they pass by the orchard.

Orchards' history as valued places is central to this natural bounty. 'Biodiversity' thrives in places that are themselves diverse, and have been that way for a long time. Old orchards are living signs of continuity in the landscape, and most species, like most people, appreciate places with a bit of history to them.

In some favoured spots, old orchards are enduring features of the landscape. Even though the trees themselves are relatively short-lived, orchards may have occupied the same piece of land for centuries. As fruit trees are periodically replaced and replanted, a diverse mélange gradually develops. Underneath the trees, a flower-rich grassland carpet evolves, reflecting years of grazing or hay-making. The combination proves irresistible to a myriad of pollinating insects which in turn attracts birds and bats, and much more. The web of interconnections has yet to be fully charted.

If the orchard is surrounded by an old and varied hedge, all the better. The hedge itself may contain locally distinctive fruit trees, such as damsons in Shropshire or cherries in Norfolk, while it provides another refuge for nesting and feeding.

Traditional orchards of tall-stemmed trees offer the best opportunities. Full-sized fruit trees harbour valuable spiders, grubs and beetles for trunk feeders such as nuthatches and treecreepers, which will find rich pickings under the bark flakes of apple and in the crevices between the chequerboard scales of pear. Orchard trees, with the exception of walnut and pear, rot relatively quickly, allowing colonisation by hole-dwelling birds including woodpeckers, which are among the most common orchard birds. Other species that find refuge among the rotwood are starlings, tits, tree sparrows - now a rare species in Britain - and, on the continent, the hoopoe and wryneck.

Orchard blossom, and the fruit itself of course, acts as a magnet for wild life, and an amazingly diverse range of creatures will be eased to help you harvest the crop. As birds and insects in particular take their tithe of fruit, they more than repay the favour, as blue tits hunt over apple trees to pick off quantities of codling moth caterpillars wasps tackle aphid pests. Even the depredations of the bud-eating bullfinch, until recently killed by commercial fruit growers under license from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), has become something to be welcomed. This beautiful bird, prized as a cage bird by the Victorians, is now in serious decline, having lost some three-quarters of its population in the past 30 years.

Not a moment too soon, conservationists are beginning to take a closer look at old orchards. One of Britain's first orchard nature reserves is Tewin Orchard, near Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Leased from the RSPB, it is managed by the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. The great variety of creatures it attracts embraces bats, a badger colony and 20 types of moth, jncluding, in spring, the privet hawkmoth. Butterflies abound, including the marbled white and the white-letter hairstreak. It has not been sprayed since 1958, enabling a healthy grassland to develop. Wild flowers such as bird's foot trefoil, field scabious and various cranesbills flourish there.

Gail Vines
From The Common Ground Book of Orchards.
You can find details of this and other publications about the nature and culture of orchards here

The poet Michael Hamburger describes birds feeding on fallen fruit
in his poem 'When wintering birds gathered'