Cider Musings

Orchards and Biodiversity

In NZ we never  had commercial traditional orchards. By the time NZ was being colonised higher intensity or bush orchards were being developed in the UK and planted here allowing for easier intensive management and cropping. 

Warning this article contains some graphic images. 


However in the UK, the remaining traditional orchards support a vast array of wildlife. Sadly the number of traditional orchards is declining. In  2004, over 1,800 species were found across the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms in just 2.2 ha of traditional orchard in the Wyre Valley, Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Worcestershire.

At TeePee Cider we wanted to recreate a traditional English apple orchard, called Beau Vista where we could source our cider apples and perry pears  for control quality and certainty of the supply chain and avoidance of pesticides etc, and enjoy increasing the local biodiversity. Or rather slow the decline has the local agriculture of the area becomes more homogenous with maize growing and dairy farms increasing in number and size. 

Natural England (formerly English Nature) supplies the following definition:

Traditional orchards are characterised by widely spaced standard or half-standard fruit trees, of old and often scarce varieties, grown on vigorous rootstocks and planted at low densities, usually less than 150 trees per hectare in permanent grassland.”


We planted our orchard 20 years ago on vigorous rootstock mainly M793 for the apples and Quince BA29 for the pears. We planted about 20 different varieties of cider apples and planted them closer than as described above with the view to removing some as the orchard matures and we see which were more successful on growing in the Taratahi plains.


Traditional orchards are managed extensively. This means little or no use of fertilisers or herbicides beneath the trees, We established a grass sward and graze it with sheep.

We do not use fertilisers; preferring to have a nutrient poor soil for cider flavours. However we have planted clover that slowly enriches the soil  with bound nitrogen. The soil is slightly acidic and is a current flooding alluvial plain of silts so can be wet.

We have installed flood prevention now to minimise this to a 1:100 year level and have had no floods after the first 10 years.


We do not use herbicides relying on sheep. We use Shropshire sheep, traditional to orchards as they rarely debark trees.

In England orchards are an historic habitat; many species of fruit tree were brought over by the Romans and Normans and the cultivation of fruit trees might date back to the Neolithic period. Not only are traditional orchards useful and beautiful, they can also be important for wildlife. They are perfect for pollinators, and fruit trees age quickly which creates essential deadwood habitats. We do leave some decaying wood in the orchard but prunings are collected and burnt for disease prevention and the ash is recycled onto the orchard.

Fallen branches, rotting stumps and dead trees, ie a deadwood habitat, are the lifeblood of any woodland.

These are the decaying stumps of a willow clump planted in the past, the area now replanted in native Kahikatea trees.

Decaying wood recycles nutrients back into the soil, provides food and nurseries for rare animals, and hosts spectacular collections of fungi. Our mounds of decaying wood are piled up as habitats for insects and skinks.

and after a year


NZ fauna being quite different to UK with more birds but essentially no mammals ( and no carnivorous ones). The only land mammals being 2 remaining species of bat which hopefully we might attract, there being a colony of lesser short tailed bats only 10km away in the mature native bush.

    Image curtesy of Department of Conservation NZ

 And many invertebrates and insects and also many fungi.

Again traditional orchards are rarely subjected to chemical insecticides and fungicides among the branches, rather relying on airflow and that infections rarely spread when in small non intensive forms of agriculture. At Beau Vista Orchards we do not use herbicides or pesticides for a healthy biodiverse orchard and knowledge that the apples we harvest are not contaminated by residual chemicals. Coddling moth, the scourge of an eating apple orchard is rarely a problem for us. There is some but with our practices and spacing  infestations rarely reaches significance and the protein the odd grub provides probably aids the yeast in its fermentation later.

Because orchards are mosaics of trees, grasses, shrubs and wild flowers, they support a wide range of wildlife. As fruit trees age quickly, they create the perfect habitats for invertebrates and birds. In England birds  such as the lesser spotted woodpecker and the rare noble chafer beetle are found. Here in Aotearoa our orchard supports a wider range birds than before it was established. We now see Silvereyes/Tauhou, fantails/Pīwakawaka, Tui as well as several introduced species of small birds such as sparrow blackbird and thrush.

Image curtesy Forest and Bird

Fantails are insectivorous birds very like robins in England and follow you in the orchard hoping you disturb some insect. And very difficult to photograph as always moving! 

Overhead, the Australasian harrier/Kāhu and kingfisher/Kotare are often seen spying prey. The Kāhu can take out an unsuspecting rabbit, thankfully, as rabbit is another introduced pest that can debark the young apple trees in winter. 

Aotearoa/NZ was an essentially a mammal and predator free land until Man arrived and introduced  rats, mice, hedgehogs, mustelids, and cats, all of which  are carnivorous, and possums that are mainly herbivores. They wreak havoc on the native fauna and flora which evolved with no protective instincts against being eaten. Many are now extinct and many more threatened. Often the native birds have evolved as ground breeding and/or smelly! We therefore trap for possums stoats and feral cats to allow the native fauna to breed better.

SA2 humane lethal trap, as certified by Landcare research 

We encourage birds by nesting boxes as well as planting many native trees

Orchards also lend themselves to mosses and lichens. In the clean air of Wairarapa there is extensive lichens on the maturing orchard trees.

In England in the last 70 years since the end of World War 2 there has been a huge dip in the number of orchards as UK have moved away from small-scale traditional orcharding to large bush orchards similar to changes in the rest of agriculture as a response to the privations during the war; making Britain agriculturally self sufficient as possible.  A loss of these biodiverse hotspots meant a loss of suitable habitats for wildlife. Only a few veteran orchards remain. And a similar trend is starting to happen here in NZ/Aotearoa. Orchards have become rare in Wairarapa region.

 In England these traditional orchards are a unique form of landscape extending back hundreds of years and the flora and fauna now associated with them have 'evolved’ over that time. An extreme and wonderful example of this is seen in the South Downs in Sussex. These grassy downlands hold some of the rarest habitats in the UK, the result of forest clearing as far back as Neolithic and Bronze Age times. Grazed intermittently and seasonally by sheep for centuries, they are home to a remarkable array of plants and creatures including  the brilliantly-coloured Adonis blue butterfly. They feed on nectar from the horseshoe vetch, and lays its eggs under the plant’s leaves. Horseshoe vetch – like most of the other small wildflowers that brighten the grasslands – only grows here because sheep graze the slightly longer grasses that would otherwise eclipse its struggle for nutrients and sun. The Adonis blue also relies upon the presence of ants, which love feasting on a honey-like substance produced by the caterpillars and pupae of the Adonis blue. During these stages in the butterfly’s development, the ants will guard it constantly, even burying it in the soil overnight. Without sheep grazing the land, the grasses grow long, and the sun therefore doesn’t warm the anthills as much , and the ants then abandon them. No ants means no-one protecting the Adonis pupae from parasites and predators! An amazing evolution started by human activity.

In NZ we do not have the Adonis blue Butterly but we do have a unique endemic Red Admiral butterfly. Vanessa gonerilla. Its Māori name is kahukura, which means "red cloak”. Red admirals were relatively common throughout New Zealand where their food plants occur but their numbers have been declining since the early 1900. 

This is linked to agricultural spraying and the decline of native nettle plants. Another factor in red admiral decline has been the introduction of 2 exotic parasitic wasps. The Australian white-spotted ichneumon wasp which was  self introduced, and the pteromalid wasp Pteromalus puparium wasp which was introduced by government entomologists in 1932–33 to control the cabbage white butterfly, a serious agricultural pest in New Zealand. ( Hopefully newer deliberate introductions will not be as harmful to the indigenous flora and fauna) There is little I can do regarding the wasps however we allow nettles to grow. The commonest stinging nettle  in New Zealand is the European  Urtica urens.

The true “common nettle”  Urtica dioica of England, which I grew up being stung by, is also found in New Zealand, but is less common. And there is the native nettle or tree nettle  ongaonga, utica xerox which is fearsome, and has is known to have killed a tramper who walked through a dense thicket of it!

The primary host plant for red admiral larvae is the ongaonga  although larvae can also eat the other nettle species. Throughout their life they use the nettle leaf to protect them during the day, by rolling the edge around them, or (as they get bigger) folding the leaf over into a 'tent’. The common nettle grows in recently cleared areas and is one of the first coloniser of bare ground. The Ongaonga and European nettle  we introduced into an unused boggy corner of the orchard under Kahikatea trees which we also planted. These majestic swamp trees were lost when the bush was cleared and the ground drained. The white odourless wood from them was used extensively to make butter boxes, for much of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This area of the orchard is never to be walked into!  Nettles are an amazing plant. Over 100 species of invertebrates  use the common stinging nettle, which is often a first coloniser of disturbed soil, as a food plant and safe habitat.

I am interested how our traditional orchard in Aotearoa will evolve as a habitat over the decades to come. Perhaps I can write a book like this excellent one from England.