With the Scottish Government planning to plant 36 million trees by 2030, John Hancox, director of Scottish Fruit Trees, says that by making just 10 per cent of them fruit trees Scotland could boost its employment, public health, wildlife, biodiversity and tourism, reports Jonathan Watt.

“SURELY the apple is the noblest of fruits,” said the 19th-century naturalist Henry David Thoreau. And it’s not difficult to see why the acclaimed American essayist would reach such a conclusion as the denizens of his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, were nourished by the fruit for generations and lived just 20 miles from the birthplace of arguably the world’s most famous nurseryman in John Chapman – more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed.

Closer to home, bringing back the benefits of more commercial-sized and small-scale orchards of old Scottish heritage fruit varieties – which used to be far more prominent and where Scotland’s fruit came from – to the country has been touted as a potential win-win for the government as it looks to nature to help tackle climate change, by John Hancox of Scottish Fruit Trees.

A former journalist specialising in environmental and food policy issues, John has spent the last 15 years working with over 500 schools and community groups to help them grow their own nurseries and subsequent orchards, and is a commercial supplier of fruit trees as well as producing his own Clyde Cider.

Forestry Journal: John Hancox.John Hancox.

Now, as discussion around mass tree planting and reducing carbon footprints reaches fever pitch, he is lobbying the Scottish Government to commit to ensuring that fruit trees will make up a sizeable fraction of new forest plantations.

Launching his campaign at Holyrood Apple Day, held during National Tree Planting week at the Scottish Parliament late last year, John said there is a good deal of cross-party support from MSPs.

“It’s not a party-political issue. Everyone likes fruit trees so we have support from all parties, and gently lobbying MSPs is a way of subtly saying you should be looking at this and put the idea that fruit tree growing is a good move onto the agenda.”

And the plethora of advantages that a thriving fruit-tree-growing culture brings means that forestry in Scotland would be much richer as a result, according to John.

He said: “There are a lot of benefits to be gained for many people from planting fruit trees. It could improve health and wellbeing, and make the environment better for people and for wildlife. Additionally, normally when you plant trees you have to wait 25 to 30 years for produce, but with fruit trees you can plant them and in three to four years get a good, usable crop.

“There’s a danger when you start talking about a large number of trees to be planted that you go for quantity rather than quality. And I think there is a certain amount of nervousness is Scotland; forestry isn’t universally popular. There is a tradition of large, dense blocks of trees which don’t really sustain much in terms of people’s work or wildlife.

“The thing about fruit growing is that orchards are fundamentally nice things and they need quite a lot of work put into them. It’s not just something you plant and come back to 25 years later. They need ongoing care and attention, so it has the potential to create a lot of jobs.”

Forestry Journal: Fruit trees can produce a usable crop within three to four years, John said.Fruit trees can produce a usable crop within three to four years, John said.

The cost of labour on orchards would more than pay for itself and boost local economies, in part via tourism, according to John, who cited the example of the Styria area of Austria which has a variety of apples and picturesque orchards at the core of its offer to visitors.

The historic area, which is known as Austria’s garden, creates a broad selection of products from its apples – from juice and bread to schnapps and truffles.

Those visiting Styria can also choose from a range of apple-related excursions such as roaming the seemingly endless orchards, taking behind-the-scenes tours of organic farms and artisanal apple cider vinegar producers, and even taking a visit to an apple museum.

“It was created on a whim by an Austrian emperor who planted a million or so fruit trees,” explained John. “Now the orchards sustain a spring festival, autumn festival, cider festival and apple wines. There’s a whole industry based on apples.

“With all the enthusiasm for planting trees now there is the potential to do something for tourism, which is very important to Scotland, and it would give something at the beginning of the season with a blossom festival and something at the tail end of the season with a harvest festival. It could effectively extend the tourist season and add another tier of interest for visitors to the country.

“There is a lot of interest in it. On a small scale, there is a privately owned orchard in Ayrshire which had far more apples than the owner could use so I suggested why not open up and let people into the orchard and there were heaps of families that turned up with their kids. It’s a really nice thing to do.

“If you look at the States, there’s a massive tradition of people going apple picking in the fall and juicing, etc.”

Forestry Journal: ohn has spent the last 15 years working with over 500 schools and community groups to help them grow their own nurseries.ohn has spent the last 15 years working with over 500 schools and community groups to help them grow their own nurseries.

While there has been casual support for the plantation of orchards within the industry, John is calling for more key players and politicians to start viewing the introduction of more fruit trees as a seriously beneficial project rather than a fringe, and perhaps tokenistic, one.

He said: “This should be a properly organised endeavour where, to some extent, what we are trying to do is feed the country, make people healthy and create local employment with all the knock-on effects that has. It should be treated as a real economic activity rather than saying ‘Well, if you want to, you can stick a few round the edges of the serious trees’.”

With tree planting rightly now being made a priority by politicians keen to do something about climate change thanks to trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide in a cost-effective way, fruit trees have extra benefits for their local ecosystems, said John.

 “It’s not only the carbon that goes into the trees but planting broadleaved trees tends to improve soil quality and absorbs a lot of carbon into the soil,” he said. “And there’s an additional carbon benefit in terms of orchards, as growing our fruit here in Scotland would displace food miles from importing so much of it from all over the world.

“Orchards have particular ecosystems associated with them; we need pollinators and orchards encourage pollinators, so having a wide biodiversity is an extra incentive, while a small percentage of the fruit will support more wildlife as well.”

Forestry Journal: John’s Clyde Cider.John’s Clyde Cider.

However, there are some obstacles to the plan to plant well in excess of a million fruit trees. At present, tree stands in agricultural production systems such as orchards are excluded from the internationally recognised definition of forest and other wooded land. As such, orchards do not benefit from the legal protection given to forests and woodland under the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 2018 or the Forestry (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Scotland) Regulations 2017.

The Scottish Government has said the conversion of forestland to orchards would leave it unable to prevent a later removal of the fruit trees and conversion to another land use, at odds with its woodland removal policy.

And John said he has seen evidence that landowners interested in replanting orchards in place of cleared forestry have been prevented from doing so by Scottish Forestry on the grounds that this is a change of use.

“There’s also probably a need to look at the forestry grant system and see if there’s a way it can make it a bit easier for forestry and land managers to plant orchards,” he said. “I suspect it wouldn’t take much.”

He continued: “If over the next 10 years we were to plant 36 million trees, having 3.5 million of them being fruit trees is not an unrealistic target. People like apple juice, apple cakes, cider and many swear by apple cider vinegar and its health benefits, so on lots of different levels this can work.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government told Forestry Journal the administration would look at new ways in which it could support fruit tree growing on small and large scales as part of its efforts to tackle climate change, but would not be drawn on committing to a target of new fruit trees to be planted.

Without serious discussion leading to proper action, John believes there is a chance Scotland could miss out on all the benefits that more orchards can bring to the country, to younger generations and to their children.

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