Bere Barley Research :  A Photostory

2nd august  2021 / by DR PETER MARTIN

Dr Peter Martin, Director of the Agronomy Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, takes some time to summarise the important research done at the insitute.

Along with his colleague John Wishart and Orkney’s Barony Mill, Peter has played a crucial role in the resurrection and research of Bere, an ancient six row landrace grain. Here, he talks about some of Bere’s agronomic advantages and history.

Breeding new barley varieties

Since 2016, in collaboration with scientists at the James Hutton Institute and University of Copenhagen, the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Agronomy Institute has been investigating some of the characteristics of Bere which have made it such a valuable crop in Scottish agriculture for such a long time. The aim is to identify the genes which are responsible for the most useful traits so that plant breeders can incorporate them into modern barley varieties.

One trait in Bere which has been of particular value to farmers in Scotland in the past is its ability to produce a crop of grain in a very short period. This is especially crucial for successful growing in the north of Scotland where the growing season is cool, planting is late and crops need to be harvested before weather deteriorates in late September. Trials in Orkney have shown that local Bere is usually ready for harvesting about two weeks earlier than most other traditional or modern types of British spring barley.

Another trait of major importance is the ability of some types of Bere to grow successfully on coastal sandy soils which are very deficient in manganese and other trace elements.

These soils are very common in both the Western and Northern Isles and are locally important for agriculture. In some places, they also form part of a dune pasture ecosystem (‘machair’) with rich biodiversity.

One of our growers, Magnus Spence, farms on such land and likes to grow Bere because it does not need any additional trace element sprays. Our own field at Burray, where we grow Bere for Bruichladdich, is also on this type of soil and has been the site of trials since 2017 investigating Bere’s tolerance to such soils.

This research has shown that the tolerance trait is not present in all Bere, but occurs in Bere which originated from areas with sandy soil in each of the three groups of Scottish islands (Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles). Dramatically, the trials have also shown that, in contrast to tolerant types of Bere, a wide range of modern barley varieties grow only very poorly on this soil.

On a global scale, manganese deficient soils are a significant constraint on crop production, and greater understanding of Bere’s tolerance could lead to improved modern varieties which are able to grow better on such soils.

Bere and Archaeology

On a global scale, manganese deficient soils are a significant constraint on crop production, and greater understanding of Bere’s tolerance could lead to improved modern varieties which are able to grow better on such soils.

Initially, this concentrated on the possibility of extracting DNA from barley grains from archaeological sites for comparison with today’s Bere, but this has not been successful since these grains are all carbonised (i.e. have been through a burning process) and this destroys the DNA.

Another approach which has been used is geometric modern morphometrics (GMM) and this has found a distinctive signature in the shape of Bere barley grain. So, samples from dated archaeological sites in the Northern Isles are being analysed with this technique to see whether there are any similarities with the Bere we grow today.

Very useful information has also come from comparing the genetic composition of Bere with that of other old types of barley from other parts of Europe. This has shown that Bere is genetically distinct from most of these other types, providing support for the view that Bere was introduced to Scotland in pre‐Viking times, and possibly much earlier than this.

A heritage grain at the cutting edge of research.

Besides the great flavour of Bere Barley Single Malt Whisky, you are holding something fascinating, useful, and still rather enigmatic in your glass.

Get the new vintage here.

Bruichladdich Distillery
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