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Scottish Landraces

A landrace is a locally adapted variety of a domesticated species of plant (or animal) which over time has become well adapted to its local environmental conditions.  Although landraces have a distinct identity, they are genetically more diverse than commercial cultivars as they have not been produced by breeding (deliberate crossing of specific characteristics), but are maintained by continual regeneration of seed by local farmers. Populations of the same landrace grown in different localities will often have slightly different identities due to a variation in the balance of individual plants within a population.

Landrace seed may or may not be sold commercially and the harvested product may have multiple uses such as food or forage. Landraces may be cultivated using traditional or modern methods and are often grown as mixtures.

Where are landraces grown in Scotland?

Landraces are almost entirely grown outwith the Scottish mainland.  In the Outer Hebrides, substantial areas of small oat (or Corce Beag in the gaelic), rye and bere barley landraces can be seen, often grown together in mixtures. In the Northern Isles you can find Shetland cabbage, Shetland oats and bere barley - on Orkney as well as Shetland. 

Bere barley, small oat and Shetland cabbage are probably the oldest surviving agricultural plants in Scotland, the cereal landraces having been considered the main crop for the Hebrides in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and Shetland cabbage (or kale) known on Shetland since the time of Cromwell.

Why do we want to conserve landraces?

  1. The Scottish Government has a commitment to conserve its plant genetic resources as a signatory to international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1992 and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) 2004.
  2. Landraces have become very rare, and like rare animal breeds, represent genetic resources of unknown diversity.  In mainland Scotland landraces were 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. There is therefore a need to collect landrace seed, record their morphological and molecular characteristics and make the germplasm available to the plant breeding community. 
  3. As landraces are variable locally adapted populations, they may have a role to play in producing varieties adapted to climate change.
  4. Continued growing and regeneration of landraces plays an important role in maintaining sensitive habitats such as the machair of the Western Isles.
  5. As part of Scotland’s agricultural heritage landraces obviously have cultural value. 

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.  For this reason the Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme was set up at SASA in 2006


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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