Sophie Cross looks at a project to preserve the genes of some of the most important fruit trees for the future
With its acres of majestic ancient oak woodlands, safari park and vintage railway, the Wyre Forest is known to many for its attractions.
But now the forest is also to play host to an important conservation project paying tribute to its heritage as one of England’s major fruit-growing regions.
Varieties as diverse as the Black Worcester pear, Worcester Pearmain apple and the Warwickshire Drooper and Purple Pershore plums are set to be protected for future generations with the launch of a “gene bank” orchard as part of a joint Natural England and Forestry Commission project.
A form of “Noah’s Ark” for the fruit world, the Grow With Wyre Landscape Partnership Scheme is seeing nearly 170 rare fruit trees – two of each variety – planted in a two-hectare orchard near Bewdley, Worcestershire.
Mouthwatering perry pears and apples, plums, quince, medlar and cherries are set to flourish over the years at the site, which will also be used as an educational tool.
Saul Herbert, of Natural England, with the Grow With Wyre Landscape Partnership, has been working with local volunteers to plant the trees throughout November and December.
In total there will be 11 pear, 14 cherry, 39 apple and 19 damson and plum trees blossoming over the years in the orchard.
He explains: “Some of the varieties are becoming quite rare. Going back 150 years or so, holdings had orchards where people would grow things for their own consumption.
“Then over the last century there was a huge growth in fruit production, which was shipped into surrounding towns and cities such as Birmingham. There was a railway which connected the forest with the city which was used for deliveries.”
But in the period following the Second World War, Mr Herbert says many of the traditional orchards were lost due to the construction of houses, fruit being grown in different ways and changes to dietary habits.
Through painstaking research, Saul and his team have drawn up a definitive list of fruit varieties that used to grow in the area.
The project’s location, off Dry Mill Lane, is listed as once having been a traditional orchard site – so the scheme is helping to revive the area’s former landscape.
It is also set to bring with it a host of biodiversity benefits, as traditional fruit trees harbour more life than fruit grown using modern methods.
Mr Herbert says: “Fruit trees become veteran trees much more quickly than, say, an oak would.
“When they become diseased and start to decay, with hollow cores in their trunk and branches, all of that has a fantastic impact on biodiversity.
“There are lots of species of beetles and bugs that live in the decaying wood, including rare species such as the noble chafer beetle, and birds that nest in the branches. The fallen fruit is also good for birds and insects.
“We will be trying to maintain quite a flower-rich grass under the trees so there will be plenty of nectar sources for butterflies and moths. The picture is going to be so much richer.”
While the trees are only in their infancy at the moment, Mr Herbert says they should start producing fruit within a few years and the orchard will reach its prime in 20 to 30 years.
The site will provide a valuable educational tool for schools, as well as act as a publicly accessible reference site for locals wanting to discover which varieties of fruit tree they may have growing in their gardens.
Mr Herbert says: “Orchards are a really important part of the landscape in the Wyre Forest, and we are helping this area return to looking like it did in the past.”
Funding of £294,000 for the orchard has been provided by GrantScape, through the charity’s Biodiversity Challenge Fund.
For more information about the Grow With Wyre projects visit www.forestry.gov.uk/growwithwyre.