Tall trees of Kent given grant lifeline: Subsidies help traditional fruits survive supermarket power. Oliver Gillie reports

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FRUIT TREES were once so large and numerous that they dominated the landscape of Kent. Today, in the interests of convenience and efficiency, most have been replaced by dwarf shrubs, but the few traditional trees that remain in Kent and other counties are being preserved with government support.

Marie Cooper's orchard at Lughorse Lane, Yalding, near Maidstone, is one such anachronism. Her 15-acre orchard is probably the last traditional Bramley orchard in England. Bramleys, the classic cooking apples, are produced by the largest variety of tree and Mrs Cooper's trees, planted in 1906, have trunks up to 3ft in diameter. The branches are thicker than the trunks of today's apple trees.

'It was the great hurricane that saved our orchard,' said Mrs Cooper, who is 70. 'My husband was going to have it taken down because the trees were not producing well but the price of wood plummeted after the hurricane and so he decided to wait for a few years.'

Then Mrs Cooper's husband became ill and the decision was postponed again. Last year he died and Mrs Cooper discovered that the Countryside Commission was interested in preserving ancient orchards. Hers is one of about 65 orchards being conserved. Among others supported by the Countryside Commission is an orchard of mazard cherry trees which grow to more than 50ft. In Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, a few orchards of giant perry pear trees are being preserved and in Little Langdale in the Lake District, where fruit trees struggle to survive in an adverse climate, an old orchard of sturdy trees is being conserved.

The Lughorse Lane orchard will be managed in the traditional way. Sheep will graze under the trees, keeping down the grass and manuring the ground. Most of the trees are Bramleys but in among them are some Lord Derby and Worcester trees which act as pollinators.

Three men help Mrs Cooper to manage her orchard, which mostly sells the well-known varieties of desert apples because supermarket domination of buying has squeezed most of the old varieties out.

'The only cooking apple anyone has heard of today is the Bramley and even the Bramley market is on the floor now. Nobody wants them any more,' said Mrs Cooper.

It is not economic to harvest much of the fruit grown in the orchard at Lughorse Lane. Most of it will be left to rot on the ground or be eaten by sheep.

(Photograph omitted)