Managing Wild Apple Trees for Wildlife

ArrayDecember 29, 2018 at 2:38 pm

By Daniel Hill, Natural Resource Manager-Lands Program The Lands Program for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) in coordination with regional staff, manages, and enhances wildlife habitat throughout the state in a multitude of ways. Today, I will discuss an integral component to any wildlife species, that is the wild apple tree, and the steps we are taking to enhance this important resource on Maine’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).  I have been involved with this management working for the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) and MDIFW.  These two state agencies work closely together to provide suitable wildlife habitat throughout the state on public lands. [caption id="attachment_3234" align="alignright" width="225"] Natural Resource Manager's and Land Management Biologist scheduling upcoming treatment location's for apple trees on the Bud Leavitt WMA. Photo Credit-Daniel H. Hill[/caption] Apple trees are in the rose family and this includes other fruits such as pears, plums, peaches, cherries, and blackberries.  There are only four species of apple that are truly native to North America and they are all crabapple varieties.  The apple trees present on our lands today, in the forest understory, in fields, and along field edges, were primarily planted to produce cider during the early 1900’s.  They can be found as scattered individuals or in groups that were once orchards.  There are many varieties in Maine, and many of those have cross-pollinated with others to produce hybrids.  An apple tree is a long-lived tree, living close to 100 years and still producing fruit, if properly managed.  Not only are these trees important for wildlife, but also maintain a legacy of agriculture and local history that is irreplaceable. Apple trees scattered throughout the forest understory provide opportunities to create occasional small gaps within the forest, enhancing conditions for multitudes of wildlife species.  These trees can be found within grouse and American woodcock management areas, to provide necessary habitat and forage for early successional wildlife species.   Trees along field edges, create forage for whitetail deer and roosting areas for a diversity of song bird species. Fruit persists on branches throughout the fall and into winter, providing necessary nutrition to animals during resource restricting times of the year. Ruby-throated hummingbirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers rely on the sap for forage along with a suite of insect species.  Many species of bees, butterflies, and moths utilize the nectar of the apple blossoms adjacent to managed grasslands.  Many different species of bats will forage and seasonally roost in these areas, due to the diversity and volume of insects that are associated with wild apples. The structure of the tree itself, provides cover for song bird nests, and cavities that small mammals can utilize as caches or shelter in winter. [caption id="attachment_3235" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] L-R: Initial tree condition along field edge, removal of dead wood, pruned extra branches, result of initial pruning. Photo credit: Joseph Dembeck[/caption] The acquisition of lands following agricultural abandonment has provided an opportunity to manage the apple tree resource, through the release, and maintenance of these long-lived trees.  The MDIFW Lands program and Wildlife Biologist’s locate the apple trees during management activities and identify the required treatments that will improve the overall health of these trees on our WMA’s.  These activities include a crop tree release within forested conditions, which requires cutting trees that are directly competing with apple trees for sunlight, improving overall vigor, and increasing fruit production.  Trees that have been previously released, or are currently along field and access road edges, provide an opportunity to be pruned.  This activity is conducted in the late winter/early spring, while the trees are still dormant, and involves tending the extra branches. Removing these extra branches will cause the tree to utilize its stored energy on limbs that will produce fruit. Crop tree release and pruning, requires multiple years of minor release and pruning treatments to prevent shocking the tree and causing mortality. Apple tree pruning and maintenance can be incorporated into any private landowner’s land management activities.  Resources are available which provide insight and direction to properly tend to wild apple trees on your property.  The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has published a great guide to inform the public and land managers about wild apple tree care and the benefit for wildlife  throughout Maine.