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A Fruity Dilemma

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 11:04 UK time, Friday, 12 August 2011

Here's a dramatic fact - since the 1950s we've lost 60% of our traditional orchards. More significant perhaps is that with them, we've also lost important wildlife habitats and a part of our cultural heritage. It's a subject I've been looking at in this week's Country Focus (Sunday, 7am, BBC Radio Wales), focusing on a two year project by Gwent Wildlife Trust to restore some of those orchards to their former glory.

I met Alice Rees who's in charge of the project at a rediscovered orchard near the Gwent levels. As soon as we arrived at the site, we saw an owl flying from a nest box in one of the apple trees - which helped to make the point that the orchards are a magnet for wildlife. Because they've always been managed without the use of chemical pesticides or fertiliser, a wealth of wildlife has been allowed to flourish - even the trees that are ageing can retain areas of deadwood; a key habitat for many rare invertebrates.

But the orchards also play an important role in Welsh cultural history. Forget pre-packaged uniform fruit wrapped in cellophane, and think old, traditional varieties of fruit which are a locally distinctive part of the landscape. Also, the Welsh word for orchard, Berllan, is found in many place names, for example Berllan-dywyll, Bryn-y-Berllan and Caeberllan. Something I didn't realise before making the programme is that Gwent was once one of the major fruit growing regions in the UK, with a reputation rivalling that of Kent and Herefordshire.

But there's a very real threat to Gwent's orchards - 90 percent of them have already been lost, mainly through neglect, development and lack of knowledge (not to mentions our fruit shopping preferences). So the project is offering help and advice to anyone interested in planting their own orchard or, if they already have one, how to maintain and protect it. One example is a partnership with Shirenewton School in Monmouthshire which has planted a small orchard with apple and plum trees in their grounds - I met some of the pupils who were really keen to tell me how they'd been involved - and how they were looking forward to literally tasting the fruit of their labours!

Later this year, they're also planting a new orchard in Chepstow as part of the Transition Towns initiative. One species which will gain from all the planting is the rare Welsh noble chafer beetle - a bright green iridescent beetle which makes its home in old orchards and which is struggling to survive at the moment. And think of all the fruit that we're also in danger of losing - apples, pears, plums, damsons and cherries - all also important sources of pollen and nectar for bees of course.

Just the names of some of the fruit varieties make you want to start growing - and tasting - them - Monmouthshire cider apples include the Raglan Redstalk, Twyn y Sherriff and Breakwells Seedling and then the Berllanderi Red, Gwehelog and Burgundy are some of the local perry pear varieties. One person who's put all this to good use is Jessica Deathe who was lucky enough to have a traditional orchard on her Monmouthshire farm and decided a few years ago to start making cider and perry - at first in a tiny garden shed but by today in a purpose built shed on the farmyard, next to the trees. In the interests of the programme, I was duty bound to sample the produce like 'Laughing juice' and 'Bishop's Fancy'. It's hard work, but...

You can find out more by visiting www.gwentwildlife.org.

One more shameless plug: the last part of the series looking at rural crime is on this Sunday on BBC Radio Wales at 1pm (Countryside Crimefighters). In this programme I meet the crew of the North Wales Police helicopter and find out how rogue traders are targeting elderly victims in isolated parts of the Welsh countryside.


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