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Orchards - a hotspot for biodiversity

Traditional orchards are structurally and ecologically similar to wood-pasture and parkland, with open-grown trees set in herbaceous vegetation, but are generally distinguished from these priority habitat complexes by the following characteristics:


the species composition of the trees, these being primarily in the family Rosaceae;


the usually denser arrangement of the trees;


the small scale of individual habitat patches;


the wider dispersion and greater frequency of occurrence of habitat patches in the countryside.


Traditional orchards include plantings for nuts, principally hazel nuts, but also walnuts. Management of the trees is the other main feature distinguishing traditional orchards and wood-pasture and parkland. Trees in traditional orchards are, or were, grown for fruit and nut production, usually achieved through activities such as grafting and pruning; whereas timber has been the main product from trees in wood-pastures and parkland, mostly derived from pollarding or selective felling.


Grazing or cutting of herbaceous vegetation are integral to orchard management, as they are in wood-pastures and parkland. The presence of scrub, mostly in the form of hedgerows on the site boundaries, or sometimes, especially in unmanaged orchards, among the orchard trees, is analogous to the frequent occurrence of scrub in wood-pastures and parkland and plays a similar ecological role (see under biodiversity characteristics described below).


Ponds and other wetland features are often present; being used now, or in the past, for watering livestock.

Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity in the countryside, supporting a wide range of wildlife and containing UK BAP priority habitats and species, as well as an array of Nationally Rare and Nationally Scarce species. The wildlife of orchard sites depends on the mosaic of habitats they encompass, including fruit trees, scrub, hedgerows, hedgerow trees, non-fruit trees within the orchard, the orchard floor habitats, fallen dead wood and associated features such as ponds and streams.


A feature of the biodiversity of traditional orchards is the great variety of fruit cultivars that they contain. For example, Luckwill and Pollard (1963) list 101 varieties of perry pear distributed across the parishes of Gloucestershire. This agricultural biological diversity is not an explicit part of the current UK BAP, although the UK Government is a signatory to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2001). The Government response (Cheffings and others 2004) includes a target for conserving crop diversity.

Traditional orchards are defined for priority habitat purposes as orchards managed in a low intensity way, in contrast with orchards managed intensively for fruit production by the input of chemicals such as pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, frequent mowing of the orchard floor rather than grazing or cutting for hay, and planting of short-lived, high-density, dwarf or bush fruit trees.

From: UK Biodiversity Action Plan; Priority Habitat Descriptions. BRIG (ed. Ant Maddock) 2008.

Note:  The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the public body that advises the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK-wide and international nature conservation.

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