Written by Maria Gill, our Volunteer Co-ordinator, drawing on information from Traditional Orchards: A guide to wildlife and management
Change is afoot here at St Nicks as temperatures begin to cool and autumn moves in. Nights are getting longer and sunshine is becoming soft and hazy. Plants and animals alike are beginning to make preparations for the upcoming cold winter, with animals gorging and gobbling up as much food as they can to build their fat reserves and looking for comfy, warm lodgings. Trees are becoming living works of art as their leaves change colour and they proudly display resplendent arrays of terracotta, russet, copper, bronze and even gold. Soon the leaves will fall, creating multi-coloured streams along paths and pavements for us to kick and crunch our way through. And of course — a sure sign of autumn — bountiful orchards, ripe with bright, delicious fruits ready to be plucked.
An orchard is a group of fruit trees and these sites are embedded into agricultural history, having provided natural produce as part of our British landscape for many centuries. But those appealing apples and perfect pears or plums aren’t something that only we enjoy. In fact orchards are remarkable wildlife havens and if you spend a little time looking, you could be surprised by the secret life of orchard biodiversity and the unique combination of species that can be found growing or foraging in the fruitful, fruity floors.
Traditional orchards are now on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) as we have, unfortunately, lost over half of these biodiversity islands since the 1950s. But it’s not all rotten news — recently the trend has begun to reverse as people are gaining a greater appreciation for home grown produce and becoming more aware of how important these habitats are for wildlife. So fear not, those damsons in distress are not doomed yet! With the creation and restoration of many community orchards, such as the Fulford Community Orchard on the edge of York, the fruits of labour are now paying off both for people and for wildlife and orchards are making a sweet comeback.
Why do orchards make such a good habitat?
Orchard sites are often mosaics of habitat. The trees themselves provide plenty of nourishment for wildlife with their glorious blossoms in spring and fantastic fruits in late summer and autumn. Not only this but fruit trees tend to age quicker than other tree species and so they gain ‘veteran’ tree features relatively rapidly. These gnarled tree branches with cosy cracks and crevices in them are perfect shelters for birds, bats and invertebrates. Various mosses and lichens will grow upon the tree branches and these are important in cycling nutrients through the ecosystem and can create microhabitats for various insects. And that’s just the trees!
Trees within an orchard are usually widely spaced apart, allowing plenty of sunlight to penetrate through the canopy and illuminate the orchard floor. This means that more often than not, biodiverse grasslands, full of wonderful wildflowers and interesting insects, can develop across orchard sites. There are plenty of other habitats that are commonly found at orchard sites too such as hedgerows, scrub, dead wood and ditches, all of which combined can create a utopia for wildlife.
What species might you see dwelling within an orchard?
Orchards can support over 1,000 different species of flora and fauna. Mistletoe is quite common within orchards as it
is very partial to apple trees. It is semi-parasitic taking a small amount of water and minerals from its host tree and using that for its own photosynthesis process. We don’t have much mistletoe here at St Nicks but last winter we discovered one tiny shoot growing on one of our apple trees. This has grown from one of many seeds grafted several years ago so hopefully we will see more this year! Mistletoe is so much more than a Christmas decoration — growing all year round, it is a valuable food source for hungry birds foraging during winter; attracting species such as the mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing and blackcap. There are also 6 invertebrate species which rely on mistletoe to survive, including the rare mistletoe marble moth.
It might not sound very inviting to you and me but the dead and decaying wood of aged fruit trees attracts a wide variety of invertebrates as they can easily burrow in for shelter or to lay eggs. In fact, over 400 different wood-decaying specialist species have been recorded in orchard sites, 4 of these are beetle species on the BAP, including the noble chafer beetle which is actually confined to orchard habitats. Most populations can be found in the west of England where orchard habitat is more common.
Wildflowers such as oxeye daisies, hogweed and other umbelifers, clovers, vetches and birds-foot trefoil are often found in orchard grassland, attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Solitary bees and bumblebees play a very important role within orchards as the beautiful blossom that the trees produce in spring needs to be pollinated in order for the tree to set fruit. Luckily the blossom is rich with pollen meaning the bees can feast in the spring and the trees can then produce a feast for us in the autumn!
If you look to the orchard floor, there’s a whole world of different species that can be found there, feeding on the fallen fruit. Voles, hedgehogs and other small mammals nibble away, filling up as much as they can before hibernation and in turn they provide food for birds of prey such as kestrels, sparrowhawks and owls as well as predatory mammals such as badgers and foxes. The fruit also feeds up invertebrates such as bees, wasps, hoverflies and moths attracting bats who love to dine on flying insects, hoovering up over 3,000 insects per night. Invertebrates will also feed bird species such as great spotted and the declining lesser spotted woodpeckers, as well as nuthatch, treecreeper, pied flycatcher and various tits, while thrushes and chaffinches nest in tangled fruit tree branches.
When spying the species within an orchard, something easily overlooked, but a vital part of any ecosystem, is the fungi that can be found. The moist conditions within an orchard make them perfect sites for the fungi to flourish. Fungi is important as it breaks down dead plant and animal matter, and certain types of fungi are part of a network of interactions between the soil and plant roots know as mycorrhizal associations. What this means is that when the fungi in the soil comes into contact with the roots of a plant, it helps the plant to gather water and nutrients from the soil. More than 80% of plants require the help of mycorrhizal fungi so although fungi might not be our first thought when we think of orchard sites, it is incredibly important in supporting many of the other species that we can find there.
Chicken-of-the-wood and weeping bracket are two fungi species that are commonly found in orchards growing within the dead wood of the trees. Orchard tooth is a fungi species that is specifically confined to orchards, growing at the end of rotten apple tree branches and is only found in about 15-20 site in the south of England. As such, it too is a BAP priority species. Its most distinctive feature is its scent which is said to have a pineapple like fragrance when the fungus first starts to grow and then as it ages, it becomes more reminiscent of rotten fruit! The presence of fungi can sometimes alarm people when they see it on trees but it usually poses no threat to the trees at all. In fact, as the trees get older, hollowing part of it, as growing fungi does, can extend its lifespan as it helps the cycling of nutrients around the healthy part of the tree and provides additional stability. The cavities that are created also give the wildlife an additional habitat to exploit. Although it may not be a crowd favourite, the importance of fungi should not be underestimated!
So, with orchards providing so many services to both us and to our wildlife, it’s clear to see why it is so important to protect this habitat and why there has been such a focus over the last few year to try to restore and recreate orchards. They provide sustenance and shelter, beautiful blossom arrays, glorious grassland areas, habitat mosaics to marvel and of course, fantastic fruits that we can pick ourselves and enjoy tucking into.
Here at St Nicks, we’re lucky to have various mature fruit trees around the site. Though the origins of such trees are unconfirmed, we believe they established back when St Nicks was a landfill site. At that time, the Rowntree’s factory, after pressing fruits to create the flavouring for their sweets, would dump the waste at St Nicks or ‘Tang Hall tip’ as it was known back then. This waste would have been full of seeds and it is likely that some of these seeds established and grew. Now these mature fruit trees are a great asset for our nature reserve and the wildlife that can be found on site. We have also planted our own fruit trees over the last few years, with our Bearing Fruit Ecotherapy group creating and taking care of the young trees in our emerging community orchard.
Whilst we’re working towards this goal, there are still plenty of trees fruiting around St Nicks at this time of year including apples, pears, plums and damsons and on Saturday 13th August, 1-5pm, we will be celebrating the natural delights that our fruit trees provide for us at St Nicks Autumn Fayre. The event is our biggest of the year and the day is full of fun activities such as apple juicing, apple Olympics, our very own Bake Off competition, nature based activities, stalls from local businesses and organisations, live music and more! So if you would like to sample a little bit of what St Nicks has to offer, why not join us for our orchard themed celebration.