Bere differs in many ways from modern barley varieties:
• Amongst barley grown in Britain, Bere develops and matures very rapidly, so that it is often the earliest variety to be harvested in Orkney. This is an advantage in the north of Scotland as late-maturing crops can sometimes be damaged or lost as a result of wet, windy weather in September and October. Fig.1 shows Bere and a modern barley in July 2014 – although both were planted on the same day, Bere is at a later stage of development. A disadvantage of early varieties, however, is that they usually yield less grain because of their shorter growing period.
• In common with many old types of cereal, Bere has much longer straw than modern varieties (which have been bred for short straw) – the straw alone can be 1.2 m in length and when the head is added to this, some plants can have a total height of about 1.4 m. Modern barley varieties may only have a straw length of 0.5-0.6 m (see Fig. 2).
• Apart from being long, the straw of Bere is weak and after head emergence this makes it very susceptible to lodging (falling over) in wet and windy conditions. If Bere lodges flat, it can be very difficult or impossible to harvest, but partial lodging is not a serious problem and sometimes protects the grain from being stripped from the head in strong winds (See Fig. 3). Lodging in Bere is aggravated by nitrogen fertilizer and so crops are usually grown with low levels of nitrogen to reduce the risk of this. This contributes to the lower grain yield of Bere compared with modern varieties.
• Most modern barley grown in Britain has its grains arranged in two rows down the head (2-row barley). In Bere, grains are arranged in six rows down the head (6-row barley) with 3 rows of grains on either side of the head. Although 6-row barley is not common in Britain, it is much more common in northern Europe and North America. Fig. 4 shows heads of Bere and a modern 2-row barley. The arrangement of the grains in the head of Bere is not easy to see because it is hidden by long awns (spikes) which extend from the end of each grain. Fig. 5 shows a head of Bere and modern barley with the awns removed – the 3 rows of grains on the uppermost side of the head of Bere can be clearly seen.
• With 6-rows of grains in each head, there are more grains per head in Bere than in a modern variety (see Fig. 6). In spite of this, the grain yield of Bere is lower than that of modern varieties because grains are smaller in size (see Fig. 7) and there are usually fewer heads per unit area of land because of use of low levels of nitrogen. For distilling in Bere barley whisky making, the small grains of Bere are also a disadvantage, because they tend to result in a lower alcohol yield.