Pure vandalism or the reality of modern life?
Once available for just 6 weeks of the year, we used to associate strawberries with Wimbledon and warm summer evenings. But thanks to polytunnels and glasshouses the strawberry growing season in Britain is now much longer. Polytunnels and glasshouses have hugely expanded our capacity to grow soft fruits in the UK. For example, today around two thirds of strawberries sold in Britain were also grown here.
Before polytunnels, only half of the soft fruit grown in Britain was good enough to be sold in supermarkets. Now, 90% is labelled Class 1 quality. Fruit grown in polytunnels also has a longer shelf life, and costs less for the consumer. What’s more, polytunnels have reduced the level of pesticide use by up to 50%.
Strawberries are the most widely grown fruit under plastic, followed by raspberries, blackberries and cherries. In Britain, the strawberry industry alone is now worth around £400 million a year because the berries can be grown for a full 6 months in the tunnels, rather than the traditional summer months outdoors. Polytunnels are also used for growing flowers and vegetables, with tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes and peppers benefiting from this protected and intensive growing method.
The environmental impact
Of the 40 million acres of farmland in the UK, polytunnels cover a mere 0.01% of the land, yet they are the subject of much controversy. In spite of their obvious benefits to the fruit industry and to shoppers who prefer to ‘buy British’, some campaigners are concerned over the changing nature of our countryside, sometimes going as far to describe polytunnels as vandalism.
Conservationists won a court battle in 2009 in the Wye Valley, with the judge ruling that proposed polytunnels need to be assessed for their environmental impact. But the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal which ruled that polytunnels are lawful even in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).