Is mistletoe rare in Britain?
Since the 1990s National Mistletoe Survey, which investigated whether mistletoe in Britain was threatened by the ongoing loss of apple orchards (its favourite habitat) there has been a widespread general belief that mistletoe is rare.
And yes, mistletoe in Britain is, generally, rare. There is very little in most parts of the country, and it is only abundant in the south-west midlands. But, as discussed on the Distribution on Britain page, that relatively rarity in much of Britain may be to do with climatic preference – it shouldn’t be mis-interpreted as a decline.
Any decline due to apple orchard loss is only likely to be detectable in the south-west midlands where both mistletoe and apple orchards are abundant. There is certainly ongoing loss of both (mistletoe and apple orchards) in this area and that is an ongoing cause for concern – but it is, arguably, ‘just’ a significant decline in abundance not a threat to the species per se.
There are other factors to consider too, especially in areas outside mistletoe’s main range. In those areas it is commonest in garden and parkland habitats, and unlike apple orchards there’s no threat to these habitats. Evidence does suggest mistletoe is increasing in these areas and habitats.
Plus there’s the management factor – in older apple orchards in the main mistletoe ‘zone’ some mistletoe-bearing trees are becoming so neglected that mistletoe is increasing dramatically. This is only a short-term gain though – those neglected trees are dying and will be gone, taking their mistletoe with them, within a decade or two. (for more about this visit the Management Needs page)
Factoring in biodiversity and commercial issues complicates this further. The biodiversity value of mistletoe is considered relatively high, with several dedicated species relying on it. But it isn’t known how much mistletoe is optimal for these species – with some evidence that they survive well in isolated mistletoe colonies and might dislike crowded mistletoe-laden trees.
From the commercial angle the ongoing loss of mistletoe in apple orchards is significant, as most of the Christmas mistletoe comes from these sources (it is not usually abundant enough or sufficiently reachable in other habitats and hosts).
So, drawing general conclusions for the whole country is difficult. There are several key points to consider, including;
- mistletoe is rare or scarce in many areas
- mistletoe is abundant, sometimes unsustainably so, in others
- mistletoe quantity is declining alongside apple orchard loss
- loss of apple orchards only really affects mistletoe in its core growing area
- mistletoe distribution is not affected by apple orchard loss
- mistletoe distribution may be changing, possibly increasing
- optimal quantities of mistletoe for maximum biodiversity is not yet understood
- loss of apple orchard mistletoe will reduce the seasonal mistletoe crop