WITH Cider sales soaring, it's easy to put a price tag on a box of Herefordshire apples, but what about the apple orchards themselves?

An innovative new project is now seeking to do the almost impossible - put a value on what orchards are worth to the view, to wildlife, to local people and to tourism.

The Herefordshire Orchards Community Evaluation Project, fronted by chartered accountant David Marshall on behalf of the Bulmer Foundation and Herefordshire's Orchard Topic Group, will spend the next two years surveying six orchards, from intensively managed bush orchards to old traditional orchards.

Recorders, like moss expert, Dr Jonathan Sleath, have already begun researching the plant life and wildlife of the orchards, from fungi to dung beetles and from bats to butterflies.

"I found 20 species in all - 19 mosses and one liverwort, rather more than I anticipated," said Dr Sleath, the British Bryological Society bryophyte recorder for Herefordshire.

"Rarities do turn up from time-to-time on orchard trees so I am keeping my fingers crossed for further excitements later on in the project."

On the human side, people living close to each of the orchards, which range from the edge of the Woolhope Dome to within the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) at Glewstone near Ross-on-Wye, will be invited to meetings to discuss how they perceive the value of their local orchards.

"This is probably the first time all the different types of orchards have ever been assessed," says David Marshall.

"In particular, we know little about the environmental value of large bush orchards. Do people value them more than seeing, perhaps, a potato or wheat field? We certainly know old orchards provoke emotions. They're inextricably linked with local traditions and culture and people get very emotional when they're grubbed out.

"But a value has not been attached to that emotion and unless you attach a value to something, it gets lost.

"It's a debate - how much more would you pay for a view with an orchard in it and how much is it worth to tourists driving past?"

Herefordshire currently makes half the UK's cider and perry - about 63 million gallons of cider alone - and has more than 5,500 hectares of orchard totalling more than 3,000 separate orchards, although many are very small.

Culturally, orchards also have a hold on the county. Babies were once baptised in cider, wages paid in it and apples buried in churchyards to feed the dead.

To find out more about the orchards project, funded by Herefordshire Rivers Leader+ Programme, the Wye Valley AONB Unit's Sustainable Development Fund, the National Association of Cider Makers; Natural England; Herefordshire Council; Bulmers and the Bulmer Foundation, call David Marshall at damagelimited@btinternet.com There will also be a chance to hear first-hand about progress of the project at a meeting to be held in Fownhope on January 19.