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Deck The Halls

Is traditional Christmas mistletoe under threat?

The Guardian, 21st December 2005

It's a freezing December morning in the little market town of Tenbury Wells. In an old cattle market by the banks of the river Teme, around 100 people have gathered, rubbing their hands and eating bacon rolls to stave off the cold. Some are local farmers, others buyers for shops, hotels and markets. All of them are here for the mistletoe.

Vast bundles of the elegant winter plant are laid out in rows on the ground. All of it has been harvested locally, brought here by farmers and travellers, hoping to get a good price before Christmas. Between the rows wander potential buyers, hefting the bundles to estimate their weight, or fingering the curved leaves and white berries to check their quality. Across it all floats the staccato cry of the auctioneer, taking bids at breakneck speed.

Tenbury Wells is the self-appointed 'Mistletoe Capital' of Britain, and this is one of its three annual mistletoe auctions - the only ones in the country. What is worrying locals this year is that it may also be the last.

Alec Wall is a retired detective and local mistletoe enthusiast. He is also one of the founders of TEME - Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise - which was set up earlier this year to fend off a developing threat to this most seasonal of plants.

'The cattle market that used to be held here closed last year', he explains, 'and a rumour went round that that was going to be the end of mistletoe sales in Tenbury. Well, this auction has been going on here since 1862, and it's the only one in the country. We formed TEME to make sure it continued. Fortunately this year the auction is still on this site, but we don't know what's going to happen next year.' What worries Alec is that the site will be developed - there have been rumours of supermarket interest - and the mistletoe sellers turfed out.

The real danger, says Reg Farmer, with his tongue in his cheek, is that the market might go to another town - perhaps one on the other side of the river, in Shropshire. 'If that happened, we would regard it as an attack on Tenbury', he says solemnly. 'It would be a national disaster.'

Reg, who has been a farmer in the Teme Valley all his life and is another of TEME's founders, is walking me through one of the traditional orchards that the region is famed for. The twisted trees are leafless in the winter sun, but almost all of them are hung with great clumps of mistletoe.
'This whole valley was once covered in orchards' says Reg. 'But a lot of it's gone. Supermarkets don't want the apples … it's all about eye appeal. And a lot of these farmers used to provide apples for Bulmers cider, till they were taken over, and things changed. These old trees aren't fit for purpose any more. But a lot of them are very rare varieties.'

The Teme valley is losing its old orchards rapidly. In this, it is part of a national trend which has seen orchard area decline by 57% over the last fifty years. This has long exercised people concerned about landscape character, biodiversity and rare apple varieties. What is more rarely mentioned is its effect on mistletoe, the vast majority of which grows on apple trees like these. 'There is less mistletoe around than there used to be,' explains Reg, starkly. 'Much less, because at the end of the day the orchards are not there.'

Does this combination of orchard loss and town centre development pose a real threat to the future of Tenbury's Christmas mistletoe? Jonathan Briggs, one of the country's leading mistletoe experts, and another member of TEME, thinks it could, and that the impact of a decline would be felt nationally. For some reason that is not yet properly understood, most of Britain's mistletoe grows in orchards in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. A threat here is thus a threat on a national scale.

'There is definitely a decline in the sort of traditional orchard in which mistletoe likes to grow,' says Briggs. 'This is going to lead, if it isn't already, to a decline in the quantities of mistletoe available at Christmas. This isn't just an English issue, it's northern European. We also import a lot of mistletoe, most of it from France and that is also harvested from neglected old orchards. If you keep on neglecting your old orchards, in twenty years time there won't be any old orchards … and then where do you get your mistletoe from?'

There are, however, signs of hope. Briggs can point to examples from all over the country of local conservation initiatives aimed at preserving old orchards and planting new ones; this, he says, is the key to a healthy future for mistletoe. And nationally, the future of orchards may look more secure if English Nature is able to fulfil its current ambition to include traditional orchards in the government's national biodiversity action plan.

Alec Wall, too, is optimistic. The publicity that TEME have managed to whip up in just a few months for their threatened market is certainly a good sign. 'It's all been absolutely astounding' says Alec. 'We've had orders from America, an inquiry from Alaska … we had the Druids down here last week, blessing the mistletoe. It's a very special plant, and this is a very special event. It simply has to continue.'