Now more than ever it is crucial to reflect on the urgent need to protect biodiversity in the UK. Orchards are an often overlooked habitat that can be vital for endangered species. Orchards have irreplaceable social, cultural and historical value. Until recently, they played a critical role in the UK’s landscape. They have a nostalgic and aesthetic value within the cultural consciousness. However, with their now dwindling numbers, traditional orchards have been identified as critical priority habitats and are part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.  

Orchards for biodiversity

Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity as they support both Nationally Rare and Nationally Scarce species. Decayed wood habitats are frequently found in orchards. This is due to apple trees being ‘early senescent’ which means they, relative to other trees, get veteran features much earlier. These veteran features are great for shelter, nesting and food sources for rare beetles such as the stag beetle, violet oil beetle and very rare noble chafer beetle. The noble chafer beetle lives almost exclusively in traditional orchards. Over 400 specialist wood decay species have been found in traditional orchards including 102 Red Data Book or Nationally Scarce species (Natural England, 2010).  

Natural England found reports that five species are restricted to orchards. These include the Nationally Scarce apple tree lace bug Physatocheila smreczynskii, which can be found in southern England on lichen-covered apple trees. It also includes the rare orchard tooth fungus Sarcodontia crocea which is exclusively found on apple trees and is known at only about 15 sites in the country. 

When it comes to fruit trees, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Traditional open-grown fruit trees, meadows, hedgerow boundaries and scrub collectively resemble wood edge. This provides the ideal conditions for many other threatened species to thrive. For example, the unimproved grassland frequently found underneath orchards can support species such as green-winged orchid, adder’s tongue fern and waxcap fungi.  

Hedgerows are another typical feature of traditional orchards. They contribute to the biodiversity value and host a variety of birds as well as providing blossoms from blackthorn, crab apple, or hawthorn which will encourage pollinating insects. The shelter provided by hedgerow can create a microclimate around the orchard. This microclimate helps to protect against strong winds and frost events which can damage blossom and result in low fruit yield.  

Historically, orchards were a distinctive feature on hospital grounds. Some great examples remain, such as the orchards in Bethlem Hospital in London and Langham Hospital in Devon. At the NHS Forest, we are determined to bring back this tradition.  

Plant an orchard with NHS Forest

This year, we are excited to be able to provide fruit trees to NHS sites across England through our Defra funded Nature for Climate Fund. We have up to 1500 fully-funded fruit trees which we are offering in multiples of 10 trees. We encourage trusts to plant them together in a traditional orchard formation (2-4m spacing) to allow that key unimproved grassland habitat underneath. We don’t currently have a definitive list of varieties available for the orchard trees, but we anticipate having a selection of apple, cherry, damson, medlar, pear, plum and quince on various rootstocks. Apply now and we will be in touch shortly about available fruit tree varieties.    

We are also offering free training for all applicants with national charity The Orchard Project. These online sessions will cover orchard design, maintenance and integration of orchards into a healthcare setting.  

Does your healthcare site have an orchard already? We’d love to hear from you!

We want to build a larger body of evidence to support this project. Orchards embody the principles of sustainability, biodiversity and hope. Through planting initiatives like this one, we can collectively help preserve biodiversity and ensure a home for endangered species. 

Further links: 

People’s trust for endangered species: 

The Orchard Project:  

The UK Orchard Network:  

Resources used: 

UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Habitat Descriptions - 

Natural England. “Traditional Orchards: A Summary – TIN012.” Natural England – Access to Evidence, 19 Oct. 2010, 

Natural England. “Traditional Orchards: Orchards and Wildlife – TIN020.” Natural England – Access to Evidence, 19 Oct. 2010, 

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