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Farming’s Past for the Future #OISF

The Orkney International Science Festival

The 2023 OISF continues to host a diverse range of talks, activities, exhibitions and speakers. Two talks which featured our farming heritage with a link to both the climate change emergency and our food security were: ‘The Lost Flock of St Kilda’ and ‘Make it with Oats, and try it with Bere’.

The Lost Flock of St Kilda, Tuesday 12th September, Orkney Theatre KGS

Jane Cooper’s new book traces her journey and experiences with the Orkney Boreray sheep breed, descended from the first sheep brought into Scotland by the Neolithic farmers.

title screen of the book

The island of Boreray, in the St Kilda archipelago, is home to a flock of feral sheep which the St Kildan islanders would visit annually to gather their fleece. From this fleece they would produce tweed cloth and wool for knitting. These goods were vital not only for the islanders’ own use but for trading – particularly to the many tourists who visited on their 19th century Victorian bucket list trip.

Jane Cooper’s talk was informative and entertaining, clearly demonstrating her love for this ancient breed. After coming to live in Orkney she soon acquired her first flock of 5 sheep in September 2013. In May 2015 the first lamb was born in Orkney. Since then, increasing numbers have been established and there are now 8 flocks in 5 different islands.

The advantages of the Boreray breed is for sustainable and regenerative farming, The sheep thrive on rough pasture, have no foot problems and the ewes wean the lambs themselves. One third of the ewes produce twins.

The loose collective of farmers in Orkney with Boreray flocks make use of every part of the sheep. The double layered coat produces a coarser outer fleece and an inner softer fleece. These are used for weaving and knitting. The sheep have to be transported to Dingwall for slaughter as Orkney no longer has an abattoir. To make this less stressful, the animals are taken there by Jane. The closure of the abattoir in Orkney has seriously affected the producers of this excellent rare breed as well as many other farmers in the islands. Animals now face long journeys by ferry (including an interisland ferry) and road.

Mutton produced from the Orkney Boreray is no longer sold directly in Orkney – although when the islands did have an abattoir the Dounby Butcher was supportive and did sell it. Today it goes for a high price because of its excellent quality and taste. It is sold by MacBeths Butchers, Forres and is in demand by leading chefs throughout the UK.

Jane Cooper at the talk with a slide showing two of her Boreray sheep

Archived article: Jane Cooper of the Orkney Boreray Community, Winner of Sustainable Food Producer of the Year

Make it with Oats , and Try it with Bere, John and Ann Cumming Memorial Lecture, Phoenix Cinema, Pickaquoy, Kirkwall, Wednesday 13th September.

Professor Karen Scott of Aberdeen University’s Rowett Institute, explained the importance of both oats and barley for a healthy diet.

There are 400,000 hectares of cereal crops grown in Scotland – 12% of the UK production. Those figures break down into:

  • 63% barley (52% malting, 27% animal feed)
  • 32% wheat
  • 5% oats (60% for food products). Half the oats produced in Scotland are exported.
  • <1% bere

Bere is an ancient barley grain and over the last 5 years its production has been increasing – mostly driven by the drinks sector. The Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, UHI, have been identifying the best practices for growing it and on developing new commercial markets and supply chains for bere.

A packet of Orkney Beremeal and a recipe book from the Barony Mill

Karen Scott quoted figures from John Wishart at the Agronomy Institute:

  • 240 tonnes of bere barley produced goes into making bere meal, bannocks and shortbread
  • 200 tonnes goes into distilling

Oats and bere are excellent cereal crops for more marginal soils, but these grains are also better for our diet. Their high fibre content helps to protect against diabetes and weight gain.

100g of oats contains 3g of Beta-glucan which is important for lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Wheat does not contain Beta- glucan which is why having more oats and barley in our cereal diet is important.

Professor Scott outlined the many research projects and studies she has been involved in but she stressed that if we are to have more fibre in our diet these crops need to be grown for that food production. To make that happen consumer demand is required. Eat it and they will grow it. Returning to an ancient grain – like Orkney’s bere barley – is an important stage in crop diversification, human health and sustainable future farming.

And thanks to a reader of the Orkney News who alerted us to this research paper: Back to the future: Using ancient Bere barley landraces for a sustainable future, where you can read more research on this subject

barley and oat grains

To encourage the uptake of oats and barley in our diet the research team produced a cook book: Go With The Grain

As part of Doors Open Days 2023 Helen and Kenny Armet produced an excellent film on using bere meal in a traditional Orkney recipe for bannocks which you can watch here:

Both talks illustrate how our farming past can ensure a sustainable and regenerative farming future if we have the demand from consumers for what they can produce. Products which are good for us, for the environment and for our food security.

Fiona Grahame

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