World's biggest collection of berries and fruits faces axe

A A A

The world's largest collection of fruits and berries may be bulldozed this year to make way for a Russian housing development, it emerged yesterday.

The Pavlovsk experimental station outside St Petersburg holds more than 4,000 varieties of fruits and berries, including more than 100 examples each of gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries, and almost 1,000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, from which most modern commercially-grown varieties are derived.

According to New Scientist magazine, the collection is likely to be handed over to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, a state body set up in 2008 to identify public land that could be sold to build private homes. The last chance to save it could come in a court hearing on Monday.

The station is part of the Nikolai Vavilov research institute, named after one of Russia's greatest 20th-century scientists, who died in Stalin's labour camps in 1943. Vavilov was the man who conceived the idea of the seed bank – a repository of seeds of every different sort of plant, to be held for future generations. He personally collected the seeds of more than 200,000 plants. The seed bank idea has now come of age, and yesterday appeals to save the collection came from the two other leading seed banks, the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"This is such a valuable collection that we can't afford to lose it," said Simon Linington, deputy head of the Millennium Seed Bank, which is based at Wakehurst Place in Sussex. "It is important that it is saved in one way or another, even if that means moving it."

Cary Fowler, the Global Crop Diversity Trust's director, called for scientists to intervene to prevent "the largest intentional, preventable loss of crop diversity in my lifetime – taking place during the International Year of Biodiversity." According to Fyodor Mikhovich, the Pavlovsk station's director, "more than 90 per cent of the collection is found in no other research station". He said it was unlikely that the courts would block the handover of the site, so attention may soon focus on relocating the collection.

A spokesman for the Housing Development Foundation told New Scientist that the station land was "not utilised" and that its inspection showed that claims about there being "priceless collections on these pieces of land [are] false".

Dr Fowler, who is in charge of assembling seeds from most of the world's crops at a "doomsday vault" on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen, said that most of the seeds in the Pavlovsk collection would not survive freezing, and only planting could protect their genes for posterity. "We will try to help them rescue the station," he said. "We have contacted a number of institutions to alert them that we may need to swing into action at short notice if the court rulings go against Pavlovsk. But no rescue effort will salvage much. There will be little time, there is no place to put the collection and quarantine regulations will prevent us sending it abroad quickly."

Norman Looney, president of the International Society for Horticultural Science, based in Leuven, Belgium, agreed the collection was unique. He said that with world food production likely to move north as a result of climate change, "these genetic resources will become even more important".

Jim Hancock of Michigan State University, one of the world's leading strawberry breeders, said the collection housed many Russian varieties that were exceptionally hardy and disease-resistant. "It would be a major tragedy if the collection were lost," he said.

Botanist who died for his beliefs

*Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a Russian botanist and one of the first scientists to try to establish the origins of crops such as wheat. While working on his theories he made expeditions to various parts of the world and brought back seeds of other plant varieties which could be used for crop improvement; his collection of seeds in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) became the world's largest.

*The collection survived the German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, even though one of Vavilov's assistants is said to have starved to death while looking after it – surrounded by edible seeds which he declined to eat.

*By then, however, Vavilov himself had fallen foul of Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who became director of Soviet biology under Stalin and founded his own unconventional theory of genetics.

*Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Today, his memory is honoured and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg maintains one of the largest collections of plant genetic material in the world; the Pavlovsk station's collection is part of this.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
Voices
voices Furore is yet another example of shameful Westminster evasion, says Nigel Farage
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
News
peopleThis time as he’s awarded the Freedom of Stirling and handed an honorary degree
Arts & Entertainment
tv
Sport
sport
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
News
peopleJay Z and Beyoncé to buy £5.5m London townhouse
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor Needed Nottingham/Derbyshire

£3360 - £16800 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Cover Supervisor requ...

English Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Urgently Required. En...

Supply teachers needed in Cambridgeshire

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are looking ...

Geography Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Day In a Page

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

Sam Wallace

Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents