Orchards are priority habitats under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. So what is so special about them?
Fruit trees are particularly good habitats for wildlife because they are “early senescent”. This means they get old relatively quickly and develop veteran features such as hollow trunks, rot holes, dead wood and sap runs.
These features are important for over 400 species of saproxylic invertebrates that live on decaying wood. These include Stag Beetle, Violet Oil-Beetle, and the beautiful and very rare Noble Chafer beetle. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species have information on their website on how to spot the signs of Noble Chafer. (But don’t confuse it with the Rose Chafer, which is similar but much more common!)
Ecologist Russell Miller found the larva of a beetle in one of the orchards we were working with in Redbridge. It turned out to be a rare beetle not seen in London since 1928.
Rot holes provide nesting sites for bats such as Noctule, while hollow trunks can provide a home for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Little Owls.
Of course this “early senescence” means fruit trees don’t live for hundreds of years, like an oak. It is still possible, though, to manage an old fruit tree so that you preserve the dead wood, while encouraging new growth.
It’s not all about the decay though
Fruit tree blossom is an important source of nectar for pollinating insects including bees, hoverflies and butterflies.
Orchards often have ponds and hedgerows which provide habitat for amphibians such as great crested newts, birds and mammals, such as hedgehogs and voles.
And because orchard trees are more widely spaced than trees in a dense woodland, they let in more sunlight. This is particularly good for flying insects who need the warmth, such as bees and butterflies.
All in all, orchards are special places, not just for us to enjoy, but for a range of other creatures too.