Rotting away: Demise of the English orchard is blamed on red tape and bland imports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Benjamin Disraeli spoke of "ripe pears and famous pippins ... and plums of every shape and hue". Charlotte Bronte extolled the "blossom blanched orchard trees whose boughs droop like white garlands" while Jane Austen praised the bountiful apple tree.

Benjamin Disraeli spoke of "ripe pears and famous pippins ... and plums of every shape and hue". Charlotte Bronte extolled the "blossom blanched orchard trees whose boughs droop like white garlands" while Jane Austen praised the bountiful apple tree.

But now the English orchard, a feature of life since the Norman conquests, is in serious decline. The amount of land planted with apple, cherry and pear trees has halved in the past 10 years, according to government figures released this week. MPs are warning of a "looming crisis". They say that the sight of an English orchard in bloom may soon be as rare as a hop garden while richly flavoured varieties once found in family fruit bowls could soon become little more than a cultural memory.

Standards demanding cosmetic perfection, symmetry and size have driven many traditional English varieties from the high street. Farmers complain that prices and red tape have left them struggling to compete with growers in France, North America, New Zealand and South America where fruit is often larger - if blander - than English fruit.

Plum production has been cut by more than 600 hectares and experts fear that next year, with new EU subsidy rules coming into force, farmers will burn their orchards because it will be cheaper not to cultivate them at all.

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman, said: "It's important to the lifeblood of the whole British countryside to maintain our orchards and to keep the rich diversity which they help to provide. The problem is the supermarkets like bland uniformity but it is the New World that provides bland uniformity."

Statistics released by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, show that in 1994 there were 14,447 hectares of apple orchards in England and Wales. But last year this was reduced to 7,796 hectares. The pear crop was reduced from 3,032 hectares to 1,742 while the amount of land devoted to plums shrunk from 1,669 to 1,003 hectares. The cherry crop was the smallest - despite a high demand for the fruit from shoppers. As tons of cherries were flown in, in England and Wales only 381 hectares of the fruit were grown last year compared to 611 in 1994.

Campaigners such as Farm, which represents independent farmers, urged consumers to buy British to help local growers. And MPs said action must be taken to protect the traditional English varieties, the earliest of which came over with the Romans.

"The English apple is very much part of England and being English," said James Gray, a Tory agriculture spokesman. "I happen to like the taste of English apples more than the taste of French ones." Mr Gray warned that the pressure on fruit growers would increase in the coming year with the implementation of the new Brussels subsidy scheme. While strawberry and vegetable growers will qualify for EU cash, orchard owners will not, unless they allow animals to graze around the trees. He said many farmers would decide to "tear down their orchards" to claim subsidies as arable farmers.

While smaller orchards will qualify for British cash under the countryside stewardship scheme, the Government confirmed that they would not get EU subsidies.

Phil Hudson, horticultural expert at the National Farmers' Union, urged orchard owners to pause before "grubbing up" or destroying their orchards.

Some farmers are optimistic that the future may not be completely gloomy. David Knight, a Kent apple grower, said not everyone liked "the Americanisation" of fruit, where the emphasis was on fruit that was "huge and tasteless".

Some supermarkets are finding that providing uniform bland fruit is not to the taste of all British consumers and are experimenting with bringing back small, English varieties of apples such as Spartans. But it may be some time before the Coeur de Boeuf apple, brought over by the Normans, is seen on UK supermarket shelves.

A GROWING CRISIS

  • Kent has lost 85 per cent of its orchards in the past 50 years.
  • In 1996-7, 4.3m kg of surplus pears were dumped in landfill sites or fed to pigs.
  • Orchards are havens for bats, badgers, owls and woodpeckers.
  • A century ago, more than 200 varieties of fruit could be found growing in a single orchard and each village would have their unique varieties of plums, damsons, cherries and apples.
  • Half of Britain's pear orchards and two thirds of Britain's apple orchards have disappeared since 1970.
  • There are 2,300 known varieties of apple, but the Cox and the Bramley dominate Britain's orchards.
  • Norwich in the reign of Elizabeth I was described as "either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city, so equally were houses and fruit trees planted''. Now more than two thirds of Norfolk's orchards have gone.

Comments