I quite often daydream about my mother’s homemade apple and blackberry pie, drowning in thick piping hot custard. And it always tastes so much better with home grown apples and blackberries foraged from the hedgerows near her house.
This daydream becomes more persistent at this time of year, when the days are cold and the nights particularly long! My pie shaped reveries have also got me thinking about the wildlife value of orchards. They don’t just provide us humans with delicious fruit, they are also home to a vast array of species, from birds and insects to lichen, mosses and fungi.
“Biodiversity thrives best in places that are themselves diverse and that have existed for a long time. Established orchards that contain veteran trees and areas of dead wood are brilliant for wildlife” says Sarah Wilkinson from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The Trust is involved with a volunteer-led Traditional Orchards Project, aiming to survey nearly 500 orchards in the county for wildlife. More and more, orchards across the UK are being recognised as vital wildlife resources.
Traditional orchards often contain a mosaic of habitats – a range of trees, scrub, hedgerow and grassland – that can support a wide range of wildlife. They recently became a national priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, a blueprint for protecting wildlife.
Winter wildlife watching among the apples
So what wildlife are you likely to find in an orchard during the colder parts of the year? Autumn sees mammals, bats and birds feasting on fallen fruit and the insects it attracts in preparation for the cold months ahead. Fungi like waxcaps, giant puffballs, field mushrooms and bracket fungus emerge on the orchard floor. A seasonal favourite, mistletoe is our only native white berried plant. It’s spread by the mistle thrush and is semi-parasitic, mostly on apple trees. It’s a great source of food for birds during winter.
Perhaps not the most obvious thing to actively seek out, orchards are also fantastic places for some serious moss and lichen spotting. Stand back from a tree and see how many hues of lichen you can see. From the bright orange Xanthoria parientina to the apple-green Flavoparmelia caperata to the grey, leafy Parmotrema perlatum, there’s a whole rainbow of lichens to discover! London alone is home to over 100 different lichen species.
Living in London, I thought perhaps there wouldn’t be that many orchards in my patch. I was completely wrong. A quick search revealed there are loads of orchards in our capital city, some hundreds of years old, others new community projects.
London Wildlife Trust’s main office is just south of the river and excitingly this area has a connection with a special apple variety called the Cellini – ‘a fine, showy and handsome apple’ according to Hogg in The Fruit Manual 1884. It was raised by the nurseryman Leonard Phillips of Vauxhall and introduced in 1828, then grown around London in the 19th Century. Inspired by this historical connection, a local project called Roots and Shoots, down the road in Lambeth, has put apples close to the heart of what they do.
Roots and Shoots provides vocational training for young people from the inner city, aiming to give them skills that will equip them for work. Popular ‘Apple Days’ resulted in David Perkins from the project being offered some apple pressing equipment by friends. He now helps to run a small juicing business, using apples to teach the process of turning raw materials into a final product to sell. The project also looks after a young community orchard as well as nurturing a community wildlife garden.
Wildlife friendly fruit growing
Orchards that are sensitively managed for both fruit and wildlife will have a greater richness and diversity of insects, which means a much higher ratio of useful insects to pests, as well as a greater number of pollinators. By using fewer chemicals, and including a range of other native plants, natural predators like ladybirds and hoverflies will be attracted and help to prevent and reduce pest problems. Crucial pollinators like bees and wasps will benefit from an orchard floor covered in nectar-rich wildflowers, while many species of invertebrates depend on the dead wood in old orchards.
To make your orchard even more wildlife friendly, provide wildlife corridors, such as hedgerows and uncut grass strips designed to link with other wildlife habitats. Plant native trees, shrubs and wildflowers that are locally appropriate and add bird and bat boxes to trees.
If all this has inspired you to create an orchard in your garden or allotment then here’s a great, small-scale idea to steal! By the beehives in the Roots and Shoots wildlife garden they have created a living fence made from a mixture of Egremont russet, Worcester pearmain and Discovery apple trees. It’s a quirky way of marking a boundary that’s a great resource for people and wildlife and would work really well in vegetable patch. The one at Roots and Shoots looks brilliant.
Another creative idea is to have a go at forest gardening. You could plant a range of dwarf and semi dwarf apple trees, mixed in with nut trees, like walnut, and currant bushes, like black and red currants. And remember to include a wildlife friendly species rich hedgerow – you can download a free guide how to build one on London Wildlife Trust’s gardening website – www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening
© Helen Babbs / The Wildlife Trusts
This article appears in the January 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine www.kitchengarden.co.uk
The Wildlife Trusts own and manage a number of orchards across the UK, for people and wildlife. To find out about orchards in your area, visit www.wildlifetrusts.org
Find out more about Roots and Shoots – www.rootsandshoots.org.uk