Government research into apple production in the heart of the Orchard County has stopped due to budget pressures, it has emerged.
The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFB) has confirmed it's stopped its apple production research work in Loughgall, the Co Armagh village at the centre of apple-growing in Northern Ireland. However, AFBI said it would continue to provide some services to apple growers.
The proliferation of orchards in rural parts of Co Armagh has led to it being known as the Orchard County. Its Bramley apple has protected geographical indication (PGI) status from the EU. Growers range from small farmers to major companies like P McCann & Sons.
AFBI said it had been winding down the apple research in Loughgall since 2015. Its decision to stop the work completely was first reported in the Ulster Gazette.
UUP councillor Jim Speers told the newspaper that he would raise the matter with the area's council. He added: "I certainly don't want to see the apple industry stand still."
AFBI said other work would continue in Loughall, including research on grass breeding, beef and sheep production, mushroom production and agro-forestry research.
It said that in 2015, budget pressures in the public sector affecting AFBI and its parent the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) meant that no further work was commissioned. In addition, no funded industry work was received.
"However, AFBI remains in contact with the apple industry as AFBI has a number of areas of expertise and services which can support the industry including food research, entomology, plant health (including apple scab monitoring in conjunction with CAFRE), and biodiversity.
"With regards to the future of the site, DAERA currently own the lands on which AFBI Loughgall is sited and represents the key funder of work at the site.
"AFBI is working closely with DAERA on any future plans for the AFBI Loughgall site."