2 November 2001

Perpetuating apple heritage

IF AN apple a day keeps the doctor away, retired biology teacher Mike Porter should be in the peak of health. He grows well over 300 old British varieties in his 1.6ha (4-acre) orchard in the Usk Valley, planted for his familys consumption, he says, "because of a life-long interest and as a rebellion against the dwindling number of varieties you can buy in supermarkets."

The statistics, sadly, back up his observation: more than 60% of UK apple orchards have been lost over the last 30 years and we now import a staggering 65% of our apples. Of the several thousand British types known to have existed even a few decades ago, just 10 domestic varieties are sold in any quantity today.

People who consider Golden Delicious a term of abuse readily point to European grants – the effect of which has been to maintain areas of surplus like France and Italy while hastening orchard decline in Britain.

&#42 Change in the air

But theres a change in the air, says Mike, a founder member of the non-commercial Marcher Apple Network (MAN) which seeks to conserve and encourage Britains pomological heritage. "Theres a tremendous growth of interest in the older varieties. Nurserymen tell me theres a steady increase in sales of trees as people with a little space are planting them again. I think its part of a heightened interest in bio-diversity. Once an apple is lost, its gone for ever, and theres such a range of tastes that people are missing out on."

Have you sampled a rich, aromatic Herefordshire Pomeroy or cooked with the old favourite for apple dumplings, the Catshead? And wouldnt it add spice to your days shopping if you could ask your local grocer for a Fair Maid of Taunton, Joybells or maybe a Hoary Morning?

MAN, whose several hundred members include smallholders and farmers as well as retired people like Mike, mainly operates in and around the Welsh Marches, mapping old orchards, exhibiting at shows, identifying varieties at risk of extinction and propagating them in new sites. With the help of sympathetic landowners, they have established four museum orchards in Breconshire and Herefordshire to create a gene bank of endangered indigenous apples, and they are on the lookout for land to set up at least one more.

"Weve more than 160 apple varieties at the largest museum site, which is Tredomen Court, Llanfilo, owned by farmer Roger Williams," Mike says. "It would be great to plant up another few acres that someone might have spare, perhaps in Herefordshire or Monmouthshire. MAN would manage the orchard. The farmer would need to have a positive interest in conserving old varieties, though, because economically speaking its only cider or juicing which bring returns." And of course there are always family apple pies to fill.

Sian Ellis

&#8226 For further information about the Marcher Apple Network, contact co-ordinator Sheila Leitch (01497-847354).

Keeping a choice: Mike Porter grows 300 old varieties of apple.