The UK acreage of cherry (Prunus avium) is approximately 381 ha. The wholesale value of the crop is approximately £2M, depending on the year. Demand greatly exceeds supply and imports amount to another £40M. Climate change is likely to impact positively on UK cherry production as the climatic suitability of the southern regions of England allow successful plants to be established beyond the current restrictions of the southeast. Grower interest in planting cherries is high – stimulated by the development of improved cultivars, dwarfing rootstocks and cropping systems, and by demand for locally produced fruit from supermarkets.
There is an important gap in the portfolio of commercial varieties currently available, which leads to loss of market share and income. With cherries, the price per pound rises considerably during July as the imports from southern Europe fade away, but by the end of July, the latest commercial varieties in the UK are themselves ripening and, thereafter, the supermarkets are supplied by high-priced imports, e.g. from Washington, USA. The opportunity for season extension from a UK supply is significant with the potential development of late flowering selections. Such selections could easily double the current wholesale value of the crop. Some new varieties ripen in early August, including ‘Penny’, which was released by HRI East Malling in 2001. There is certainly a need for varieties ripening from mid-August to September that meet the normal commercial requirements of, e.g., large fruit, black flesh, firm texture and good quality. At East Malling Research, in project HH3717STF ‘Extending the season of stone fruit by breeding late-ripening cherries and medium-early and medium-late plums’, we have improved the small-fruited cherry breeding lines that are pickable until October.
This project aims to maximise the outputs from project HH3717STF by identifying the potential of the germplasm and breeding lines developed and deciding on the most appropriate route for it’s delivery to the industry. Although some of the genebank data is currently organised into an inventory detailing the particular key traits and source of each accession, data from much of the other germplasm, i.e. breeding lines, is not in a readily searchable format. Data and descriptions of these breeding lines will be organised into a uniform, searchable format to facilitate evaluation. Some of EMR’s more recent cherry progenies have still to be fully screened for fruit quality and yield. These fruiting selections will be netted in the summer to enable fruit size, colour, quality (cracking) and yields to be recorded and evaluated. These data will be compiled with previous seasonal data to provide a balanced and quantitative view of selection performance and will be added to the inventory. This will be carried out in 2008 prior to developing plans by which the material and data will be shown to the industry to provide them with the opportunity to determine their interests and potential financial support via grower funded commercialisation. This project also aims to help with the establishment of a new commercially funded EMR Cherry Breeding Club which would provide the perfect vehicle for maximising the potential of the breeding lines developed at EMR and provide UK growers with improved selections of late ripening cherry. This would be done after consultation with the Stone Fruit Club which provides an excellent forum for interchange between research workers, growers, advisors and marketers via periodic meetings and farm visits and is thus an important route for technology transfer to the UK industry. The Stone Fruit Club was formed approximately five years ago as a technology transfer vehicle and does not provide the funding for the development of new varieties.
EMR also has an extensive gene bank collection which it has maintained for many years, with Defra support, as a vital resource in its Rosaceous Genomics work and the Cherry Breeding programme. With the transfer of cherry breeding activities into the private sector, it is envisaged that this material will need to be rationalised and perhaps planted at other locations for genetic conservation, development and use. As Defra maintains its national fruit germplasm conservation programme at the Brogdale Farm site, it would seem appropriate and timely that the custodians of this material should be engaged with EMR staff in determining the usefulness of this material in fulfilling their aspirations for the future of Brogdale along with how effectively it can be conserved, particularly if this should involve its transfer to the Brogdale site for inclusion in the National Collection. Defra’s National Fruit Collection Advisory Committee supports the idea in principal of the development of the collections into a more complete genetic resource. The EMR Prunus gene bank fits this description being highly polymorphic with several different species of Prunus that are not currently represented at Brogdale and would be an ideal replacement for the multiple duplicates recently identified within the Brogdale Prunus collection.
This work is fully consistent with DEFRA’s priority area 'Sustainable Farming and Food'; increasing the UK production of locally sourced late season cherries should improve the UK's food security and reduce imports which have particularly high carbon costs. Cherry falls into the high health 'five-a-day' scheme and is a particularly appealing fruit for children. Increasing the acreage of cherry plantings will also have a beneficial affect on the rural economy and the landscape.