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Scottish Landraces

What are Landraces and where are they grown in Scotland?

The terms 'landrace' and 'traditional variety' are often used interchangeably and the boundary between them is blurred. However, for the purposes of this website, landraces, traditional varieties and modern varieties are separately described.

Landraces are variable populations with a distinct identity, have a long history of local cultivation and seed production, and are well adapted to local environmental conditions. Although landraces are genetically diverse, they have not been produced by breeding (deliberate crossing of specific characteristics), but are maintained by continual regeneration of seed by local farmers.

Seed may or may not be sold commercially and the harvest product may have multiple uses e.g. food and forage. Landraces may be grown in mixtures using traditional methods of cultivation, although crop husbandry can also be modern.

Populations of the same landrace grown in different localities may have different identities and may contain a unique mixture of different plants.

The survival of landraces is dependent on a continual cycle of regeneration and sowing; if seed harvest fails, the landrace will be lost unless a sample of the population has been conserved in ex situ storage.

Traditional or Heritage varieties are considered to be primitive (as opposed to modern) and maintained by continued deliberate selection of desirable characteristics which broadly retain their expression wherever they are grown. Regeneration may be in a different locality from where it is used and seed is often sold commercially; the crop harvest product (rather than seed) may be sold for a particular use e.g. food, forage, thatching, distilling or brewing. Many traditional varieties were in commercial agriculture prior to the introduction of patents or Plant Breeders' Rights.

Modern varieties

Modern varieties are produced by deliberate crossing and are highly uniform, uniformity being achieved by the production of F1 Hybrids or by selection and regeneration of single seeds from the original parental cross (single seed descent method). Regeneration is usually remote from the growing environment and seed is sold commercially and may be protected by patents or Plant Breeders' Rights.

Where are landraces grown in Scotland?

With the exception of Scots Timothy, which is still grown in Stirlingshire, landraces have all but disappeared from mainland Scotland. The most remote Scottish islands have become refuges for their use; in the Outer Hebrides, substantial areas of small oat or Corce Beag, rye and bere barley landraces are grown, often together in mixtures; on the Shetland islands, Shetland cabbage, Shetland oats (small oat) and bere barley are grown; on the Orkney islands, Shetland oat (small oat) and bere barley are grown.

Bere barley and small oat are probably the oldest surviving agricultural plants in Scotland and have been described as the main crops for the Hebrides in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There may be more landraces (different crops) grown in different localities that have not been detected, so staff working in the Scottish Agricultural College and the Scottish agriculture departments are being asked to contribute information about the distribution of existing or undiscovered landraces growing in Scotland; the collection of seed for ex situ storage through participation in the Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme will also be encouraged.

Why do we want to conserve landraces?

  1. The Scottish Government has a commitment to conserve our plant genetic resources through the UK’s obligations to international treaties The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)  and The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) 2004.
  2. Like many native animal breeds, landraces have become very rare, and like many rare breeds, landraces represent genetic resources of unknown diversity. In mainland Scotland landraces have been replaced, firstly by traditional or primitive varieties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and more recently by modern varieties produced by plant breeders in the latter half of the 20th century. We need to collect seed of landraces and record their morphological and molecular characteristics and also evaluate their potential for use. 
  3. Understanding how the different populations vary will help us to develop strategies for their conservation and for their local use.
  4. As landraces are variable populations, they may have future value in being able to adapt to climate change more rapidly than it takes to breed new varieties.
  5. Continued growing and regeneration of landraces not only plays a role in local agriculture, but also in maintaining sensitive habitats such as the machair. 
  6. Landraces have cultural value as part of our agricultural heritage.


Camacho Villa, C.T., Maxted, N., Scholten, M., and Ford-Lloyd, B. (2006) "Defining and identifying crop landraces", Plant Genetic Resources, 3(3), 373-384, available from:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/PGR200591


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