Wednesday, 29 September 2010

New Apples and Extinct Plants

Two apparently unrelated pieces of news are doing the rounds. First comes a cheering cider-related story: according to The Guardian, 29 new cider apple varieties are being harvested today. Under the watchful eye of consultant pomologist Liz Copas, a quarter-century of R&D is bearing fruit (sorry). Liz kindly contributed a Q&A piece to The Naked Guide to Cider, and allowed us to pillage her fabulous 'Somerset Pomona' for our section on cider apples. It's quite good, if only for that reason.

One new apple, Lizzy, is named after her. The others also mostly have women's names, and don't really have the ring of apples past. Would you take Sops of Wine or Tina? Yarlington Mill or Naomi? Porter's Perfection or Fiona? One, Prince William, isn't altogether new, since Thatchers have been making cider from it for a while.

But it's good news, more or less. The story gets a little murkier when you start thinking about the orchards these new fruit will be grown in, not the standard orchards of yore, but modern, commercial, high yield orchards. Not that there's anything wrong with this - cider has to be commercially viable just like any other business - but...

Well, let's hear about the second news story. According to new research, a fifth of the world's plant species are threatened with extinction. Analysis by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggests that 22% of the world's 380,000 plant species could be under threat, mostly because of deforestation.

You may wonder what that has to do with us here in the UK. After all, our countryside was thoroughly deforested before the Normans invaded and introduced us to the joys of good cider. But just as damaging has been the spread of intensive farming methods, which has led to 97% of our unimproved grassland being destroyed since World War II.

'Unimproved' is a curious kind of word, suggesting inferiority. 'Unimproved' grassland is not pure grass, but is contaminated with all kinds of weeds and whatnot. To improve it, you plough the land, plant one or two dominant grass varieties, fertilise liberally and spray thoroughly with pesticides. You now have a grass larder for livestock.

What you don't have is wildflowers, bees, butterflies and other insects. The unofficial denizens of the countryside - which is mostly farmland - have retreated into smaller and smaller pockets of unimproved land. And one particularly fine oasis - a nature reserve in effect - is the traditional orchard, planted with widely-spaced fruit trees and grazed by sheep or cattle.

When the People's Trust for Endangered Species acquired Rough Hill orchard in Worcestershire it was badly neglected and had been overgrown with brambles. Yet they still recorded over 110 species of plants, including agrimony, black knapweed, wild carrot, quaking grass, and the great dodder. These plants and numerous species of insect, bird and mammal, had coexisted with livestock and fruit trees for years, but, had it not been for PTES, they and the orchard would almost certainly have met one of two fates before very long.

Either the orchard would have been grubbed up for housing or another crop - possibly a new, high-yield orchard. Or it would have been taken over increasingly by brambles and scrub, until it disappeared.

We control our countryside in a way that would have seemed impossible a hundred years ago or even less. A large meadow can be stripped of 99% of its life almost overnight. An orchard can be full of plants, birds and insects one day, and be gone the next. It isn't enough for the National Trust and other organisation to buy up odd farms here and there and preserve them. We have to put the same kind of energy and thought into preserving plants and wildlife that we put into developing new crops and new methods of growing more, quicker.

A BBC interviewer seemed astonished that Liz Copas had spent 25 years developing new apple varieties. It takes far longer for a meadow to return to life after a single ploughing.

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