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Has rain ruined Britain's fruit crops?


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Record-breaking rain in the UK has blemished apples, split cherries and kept customers from pick-your-own summer berry fields. Are Britain's fruit crops ruined?

August is a major harvesting month in the UK, as the apple season begins and early varieties such as Discovery turn ripe. Plums are being picked and packed off to shops.

But the wettest April to June on record has brought one of the toughest years for some of Britain's fruit growers.

"I think it's probably the worst year I've seen," said Martin Harrell, from Hayles Fruit Farm in the Cotswolds. "The worst year for 60, 70 years."

When deluges hit his farm during spring and summer, Mr Harrell said all he could do was "grin and bear it".

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"When you think that we could have lost 60 to 70% of everything that we grow, it is a huge, huge hit."

Poor pollination has been a major cause of reduced fruit crops.

A very wet May meant "bees were not flying very much" when they should have been pollinating fruit blossom, explained Chris Nicholson, fruit consultant at agricultural consultancy ADAS.

Worse, some apple, plum and cherry trees previously "stressed" by drought produced blossom weaker and "not as good as last year".

The first English apples appear in shops in August, with the season now stretching until the next May, while the pear season starts in September.

This year however, shoppers should expect to see more apples with blemishes, as a result of being battered by wind and rain.

"The taste of the fruit is completely unaffected. It's purely a skin marking," said Adrian Barlow, managing director of trade association English Apples and Pears.

Skin defects in apples and pears are likely to include a browning in colour, or "russet", and marks caused by rain and by fruitlets being knocked together during high winds.

The weather has also caused a shortage in supply.

Cherries in a basket Red and juicy: But rain caused cherries to split before the harvest

UK apple production has been predicted to drop by 15% compared to last year, according to the World Apple and Pear Association (WAPA).

While "there won't be an absolute shortage in that there won't be apples on the shelves", fewer apples means prices are likely to increase, from about £1.69 per kilo to £1.89 or "perhaps even £1.99 a kilo", Mr Barlow said.

After the first British apples arrived, the last home-grown cherries have been leaving supermarket shelves, and after a bumper crop in 2011, cherries have been among the worst-affected fruit crops this year.

"Probably the national cherry crop was reduced to a third of what it might be in a bumper year," said Nicholas Marston, managing director of co-operative fruit supplier Berry Gardens.

Many cherries split on the tree, as excessive water absorbed by the roots caused the fruit to swell up too quickly and crack.

Plums too have been splitting and cracking under the strain of excessive rain.

Start Quote

Obviously it's been a terrible year for pick-your-own. We keep getting deluge of rain after deluge of rain”

End Quote Martin Harrell Fruit grower, Hayles Fruit Farm

Depending on the orchard, plums are "anything from 20% to probably 80% down".

On Martin Harrell's farm, plums have been a scarcity.

"We certainly only have about 30% of a crop of Victoria plums and virtually no Marjorie seedlings whatsoever."

But "there will still be good supplies of English plums" for fruit-lovers, said Nicholas Marston.

"Although the yields are down, there are quite extensive orchards and some have got a reasonable set."

So-called "top fruits" such as apples, pears and plums are usually grown outside and as a result have been some of the worst affected.

Many strawberries, raspberries and some cherries are grown in protective polytunnels. Despite this, constant rain has still had an effect and "increased growers' costs," explained Mr Marston.

However, volumes of strawberries and raspberries have not been "too badly affected" this year, he added.

Wet weather winners

Blackcurrants growing on a bush

Source: Chris Nicholson, fruit consultant at ADAS

Sixty-day-strawberries prefer the cool and wet. The plants are kept in cool-stores until planting but struggle to get going during hot summers

Blackcurrants should be juicy for next year's season. After a few dry summers for blackcurrant bushes, rain has encouraged the plants to spread and grow

Raspberries have done "reasonably well" in the wet weather, explained ADAS's Chris Nicholson.

"Raspberries are a woodland edge plant. They like it a bit cooler and a bit duller and moist, so they haven't been too bad."

But the weather this year has had one other effect - consumers have not been in the mood for summer fruit.

Even the Diamond Jubilee in June failed to create the expected boost in berry sales.

"The fruit's been produced but the customers haven't really been there to take it up," said Mr Nicholson.

"So you may have noticed that a lot of the supermarkets have been on promotion with strawberries and now raspberries as well."

Pick-your-own fields of summer berries have also failed to attract the usual crowds.

"Overall for pick-your-own businesses, it's a trying year," Mr Nicholson told the BBC.

Martin Harrell's business, Hayles Fruit Farm, is one place to have missed out on visitors.

"It has been a terrible year for pick-your-own. We keep getting deluge of rain after deluge of rain," he said.

Plums Victoria plums are in season in August and September

According to English Apples and Pears' Adrian Barlow, fruit growers probably experience the "sort of difficulties" induced by such extreme wet weather "every 15 to 20 years".

But the British fruit industry remains optimistic as it believes locally grown apples, pears and cherries have been enjoying a revival with shoppers embracing "locally-sourced".

Berry Garden's Nicholas Marston said: "This year's poor weather was a bit of a set-back but you would expect to see increasing amounts of English cherries in future years."

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