Traditional orchards can occur on a wide range of soil types and slope types, but are generally found in lowland areas. Historical data shows that over the whole of England, the area of orchards has declined by 57% since 1950. Estimates suggest that there are around 487 orchards amounting to 134 hectares in Wiltshire. However, ground-truthing has not yet been carried out, so it is not possible to determine the reliability of this data, or distinguish between which of these are traditional and which are non-traditional orchards.
The Wiltshire Traditional Orchards Project has been set up to undertake ground-truthing to determine the reliability of the data, age and condition of the orchards and to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional orchards.
Orchards provide food and shelter for a range of for wildlife in the countryside and are composed of a network of habitats. They support a number of UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species that are rare, protected or scarce. 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.
Highlights include lichens, fungi, a host of invertebrates and birds and mammals including bats. The semi-parasitic plant mistletoe is particularly associated with traditional orchards.
Traditional orchards are structurally and ecologically similar to wood-pasture and parkland, with open-grown trees set in herbaceous vegetation, but is generally distinguished from these wood-pasture complexes by:
- The species composition of the trees, primarily being in the family Rosaceae
- Denser tree arrangement
- The small scale of individual habitat patches
- The wider dispersion and greater frequency of occurrence of habitat patches in the countryside
- Management of the component trees being through activities such as grafting and pruning as opposed to timber production through pollarding or felling
The main ways that traditional orchards are different to modern commercial orchards are:
- They are low intensity
- No chemical input
- Grazing of the orchard floor or cutting for hay
- Larger, older trees (e.g. Perry Pears 150 years old) and spacing of between 3-20m
- Vigorous rootstocks
- Dead wood provides home for saproxylic species
- Can have long history of continuity on same site