Saving our perry pears, plums and cider apples for the future
4th May, 2010
How one group is restoring the lost lustre of England's fruit orchards, and why a landfill site turned out to be a blessing in disguise
The plum trees are in full blossom on Hipton Hill, above Evesham: a 70-acre orchard of neat rows and a mess of branches, candyfloss white, bathed in spring sunshine. Insects whirr through the air and birds trill in the distance.
If it seems like a pastoral scene, it was once much more so. Three miles away, the Worcestershire town used to be one of England's major hubs of market gardening, and the Vale of Evesham, which stretches between Worcester, Cheltenham and Stratford-upon-Avon, was famous for its orchards. What remains may be a mere fraction of what it was, but a dedicated group of volunteer conservationists aims to arrest this decline - and maybe even reverse it.
'This used to be orchard country,' says John Porter, 67, a founder trustee of the Vale Heritage Landscape Trust (VLHT), gazing out over the hazy green sweep of the vale as though looking back in time. 'You'd see it if you looked at a map from the 1930s, the heyday of fruit-growing around Evesham. The whole area was covered in trees. In season, tens of tonnes of fruit would be picked every day.'
Autumn for orchards
Things have changed a lot since then. During the 1970s and 1980s, subsidies for cereals, a hardier, more profitable crop, encouraged farmers to plough up the land - the frost-susceptible cherry orchards were the first to go. The A44 bypass, a car-filled river glittering in the distance, put paid to more fertile acreage. Even now, town planners are on the verge of approving the construction of 500 houses closer to Evesham, which will result in another commercial orchard being 'grubbed up' - a term as apt as it is ugly.
Deracination affects people, too; communities and traditional ways of life can be uprooted, leading to alienation from a culture, an environment. Preventing this happening is at the heart of the Trust's work.
'We came up with the idea 10 years ago,' explains VLHT chairman Dave Shaw. 'Some of the old-time market gardeners were becoming concerned about their orchards being lost when they died. The original concept was to create a body to which they could bequeath their land, but in practice we've also been able to tap into things like the Landfill Community Fund, which has allowed us to buy up various sites around the vale.'
Since its inception, the Trust has been slowly stitching together a mosaic of agriculturally diverse land, parcels of varying size that form conservation and wildlife stepping stones amid a landscape that has been managed for horticulture since the eighth century - intensively so since the late 19th century. Hipton Hill, says Shaw, is VLHT's 'crown jewel'.
Valuable less in commercial terms (Hipton's fruit fetches £1,500 or so a year at the moment) than in terms of heritage and landscape - it's a jewel that has taken some buffing. The orchard had been neglected for a decade before VLHT took it on three years ago. Since then the seven trustees, one employee and a 35-strong team of local volunteers have been hard at work restoring its lustre.
Fenced off into 10 'mini orchards', a sea of brambles has been cleared, suckers from root stocks pulled up, diseased trees identified and removed, sheep brought in to graze the brushy grass. There is conservation too - dead wood is left to rot to encourage the noble chafer, a vulnerable species of beetle that lays its larvae in decaying fruit trees and whose numbers have declined alongside them; wild orchids and butterflies like the Grizzled Skipper thrive amid heritage varieties of apple such as the Madresfield Gold and Newton Wonder, replanted beside the stumps of old plum trees, like memorials to the fallen.
The Blossom Trail
'It's all about not having your eggs in one basket, diversifying our crops,' says Trust manager Andy Davies. 'So if the cider apples get hit with disease, the perry pears will survive.' The goal is to create a wildlife-friendly, semi-commercial orchard, perhaps producing juices, jams and ciders in the future. He reels off other evocative names: the Pershore Purple and Pershore Yellow Egg; Marjorie's Seedling; and Hipton's mainstay, the Victoria plum.
A former optician and amateur cider-maker, Davies is more aware than most of the success and popularity of the VLHT project: he became its sole employee in 2007, employed to manage 50 acres, but today oversees more than 200 acres, including woodland, grassland and riverside meadows.
The orchards are the poster boys of this conservation campaign, however, their spring blossom adding the colour and drawing the crowds. Between March and May, the Blossom Trail is a major tourist attraction, a 40-mile route that takes in the pinks and whites of the vale's cherry, apple, pear and plum trees. The local council, Wychavon, is belatedly realising the benefits of preserving Evesham's beautiful orchards: if the trees go, so does the blossom; if the blossom goes, so do the tourists. It's a question of priorities, and skewed as they are, these financial considerations may yet work in the Trust's - and the landscape's - favour.
There are other peculiar relations at work. Davies explains, paradoxically, that VLHT owes much of its success to a vast landfill site in the near vicinity. The company that runs it, Severn Waste Services, is obliged to donate some of the tax it raises to environmental causes within the region. Evesham's favourite son, comedian and conservationist Alistair McGowan, has also been of great help raising the Trust's profile, pictured eating Hipton plums in the local paper.
The publicity is already working, with most of the Trust's acquisitions made as a result of being approached by landowners, who offer preferential rates, first refusals and time to raise the capital. Davies also keeps an interested eye on the property pages of the Evesham Journal, and has 26 acres at nearby Sheriff's Lench in his sights, on the market for £150,000.
'I don't have any family to leave my land to when I die, so I'll leave it to the Trust,' says John Porter, a keen proponent of sustainability and sustainable farming, who grew his own orchard from seed. 'Hopefully as more people get to hear about what we're doing, and realise the importance of our heritage and landscape, others will do the same.'
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