Bungle puts England's orchards at risk

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of traditional English apple orchards are in danger of being chopped down because ministers have botched a farm subsidy scheme, the Government's nature conservation agency has warned.

Hundreds of traditional English apple orchards are in danger of being chopped down because ministers have botched a farm subsidy scheme, the Government's nature conservation agency has warned.

English Nature has told environment ministers that the new scheme will make it impossible for most of England's fruit growers to claim any EU grants when it comes into force in 2005.

The new grants scheme, which will pay out £20 a hectare next year and £200 a hectare by 2012, will cover only fruit farms that have 50 trees per hectare. But most English orchards plant 150 to 200 trees per hectare. As a result, they will be forced to dig up thousands of hectares of the country's remaining apple and pear orchards next year - devastating parts of the English countryside.

Ironically, the EU-wide scheme is designed to protect the environment and promote ecological diversity. Sandra Bell from Friends of the Earth said it would be the "last straw" for most fruit growers, who are already under pressure from foreign imports and tough pricing by supermarkets. "It's crazy that a scheme meant to protect the environment could destroy a much-loved part of the countryside," she said.

Gareth Morgan, English nature's agricultural policy officer, said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had so far failed to respond to calls for action.

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