7 Aug 2007

Community Orchard: Free fruit in Whiteshill

Our community orchard in Whiteshill is starting to see fruit - and residents are invited to pick them - well perhaps not this year - there is only a very little fruit ripening as the trees are so young but by next year the crops will be more serious...

Photos: Whiteshill and Ruscombe Community Orchard taken earlier today after a mug of tea in the Village Coffee Bar at the shop

It was back in December 2005 the whole of Whiteshill School turned out on the playing field with the Parish Council to help plant 25 trees for the village orchard. The trees chosen were mainly Gloucestershire apple varieties with one or two extras like the Beauty of Bath along with a couple of plums and pears.

Four children were allocated to plant, tend and monitor each tree - all the trees were planted and staked in the morning - the labels have sadly still not got to the trees but are planned for this summer so everyone can identify the fruit.

Community orchards are not new but are at last becoming more popular - strangely Milton Keynes is now leading the way - more community orchards than anywhere else in Europe - 130 of them and over 2,500 trees. Read more here in Guardian article.

Sue Clifford, joint founder of the wonderful Common Ground, a group that celebrates and promotes local distinctiveness, has a record of several hundred community orchards in England, but there is no complete register and no one has any idea how many there may be, or where they all are. She said in The Guardian article: "What we know is that they are real community assets and there's a growing movement to plant them. Some counties, like Devon, Kent and Somerset, are very strong because they want to preserve their old orchards. It's both a rural and an urban movement. They are a real example of how people and nature can work together.

This is good news but the sad news is that private and public orchards, once widespread throughout Britain, are now in steep decline in this country. Three decades of supermarkets stocking cheap apples from New Zealand and France (around 70% of the UK's apples are imported) almost killed off the seasonal British commercial orchard, and even though there is a new commitment by stores to stock local varieties, the bulk still come from abroad.

A few farmers are looking to recreate orchards. Locally Julia Currie in a field nearly opposite More Hall Convent by the corner of Ruscombe Road has tried to renovate and existing orchard that had fallen into serious neglect and also planted many new varieties.

It was not so many years ago that every farm, country house and suburban garden had its own collection of fruit trees. Now the loss of gardens for developments and cheap fruit from abroad has caused the loss of many of these small orchards.

It is clear that orchards can help make communities, but they are not enough in themselves. Some work better than others - to work they need to be "owned" in some way or they will just be left to fend for themselves.

Glos County Council had a great idea to use fruit trees on verges - some have worked but others less well - the Linear Orchard on the cycle track to Stonehouse still has some 59 trees - and at least 4 dead ones. Some of them are doing really well, but the majority are fighting for light and space with other trees. Most of them have a small plaque with the named variety and a sentence about their origin, but I understand from a local expert that quite a few of them are wrongly named. Sadly the problem I suspect lies in the loss of Richard Fawcett, the Tree Officer behind the initiative - he emigrated shortly after the planting and it appears the County has done little about them since.

To me the Stonehouse cycle track is a little too far from homes - the Nailsworth one would have perhaps been a better site - indeed I hear that several people are talking about whether they could establish one along that track. But hey, locally there must be a few more bits of community land where a few trees can be established? Anyone interested?

Meanwhile three cheers to the group in Leonard Stanley who are looking to take over a local farm - this will be the third community farm project in Stroud. Very good luck to them - see more here.

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