Fenland farmers are being urged to join the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme in a bid to save the last remaining fragments of the region’s traditional orchards.

Conservationists have voiced concern that the scheme is failing to attract enough applications to meet its objective of preserving the landscape and wildlife associated with arable farming.

They have warned that many orchards around the market town of Wisbech could disappear altogether – despite the introduction of the stewardship scheme which pays farmers £250/ha (£101/acre) for their preservation.

Bob Lever, of the East of England Apples and Orchards Project, said:

“The HLS gives farmers more scope than any other environment scheme for preservation of traditional orchards.

We want more farmers to take advantage of it and sign up.”

Once a prime fruit growing area in the heart of the Fens, there are now believed to be fewer than 100 traditional orchards left in Cambridgeshire.

The fragments that remained – often on arable farms – were of national importance, said Mr Lever.

Government grants encouraged many farmers to grub up trees as Britain sought to increase food production following World War Two.

Ironically, the government now wants farmers to replant traditional apple varieties.

DEFRA this week admitted disappointment over the number of farmers joining the HLS scheme since it was launched last year.

Officials said they would look favourably on applications from farmers with as few as six traditional fruit trees.

Nigel Russell, of DEFRA’s Rural Development Service, said: “Restoring orchards is one of the better paid options considering the amount of work involved.

Unless we are careful, there will come a time when what remains will have fallen by the wayside.”

But it is not all bad news.

David Wheatley, who farms 120ha (300 acres) of wheat, sugar beet and potatoes at Wisbech St Mary, said receiving payments to restore nine hectares (22 acres) of derelict orchards had “been a lifeline” for his business.

“Restoring the orchards has been a valuable source of income for us at a time when prices for our other arable crops have been at rock bottom.

We have managed to identify almost 30 apple varieties and take on an extra employee.”

fwnews@rbi.co.uk