For many years the Living Field garden near Dundee grew a range of ancient (and modern) cereals, partly for interest and partly to show people what used to be grown and eaten in the northern croplands.
Now the garden is no longer in operation, the editor misses the wonderful cereal diversity that used to be on show. So a small patch in a vegetable garden, just 2 m by 1 m, was sown with old saved seed at various times in April this year.
Most of the cereal species or varieties emerged quickly and in numbers, but a few took more time and some hardly germinated. For example, only one seed of Shetland bere barley germinated (saved from 2015), but that single plant went on to produce many ears.
Here’s some photographs taken in August 2022.
A favourite, its distinct two rows on a curvy ear with very long awns. It germinated, grew and formed ears quickly, and was maturing by mid-August.
The Lawsons’ seedsmen , writing in the mid-1800s, classed it as a distinct type, different from two-row and four- to six-row barleys. They also named it fan or battledore. You can see the likeness to a fan, less so to a battledore – an oval paddle used to wash and beat clothing or a racket used with a shuttlecock.
Emmer Triticum dicoccum was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the fertile crescent. It is no longer grown commercially in the north but emmer flour is still available from specialist merchants.
It was the slowest of all the seedlings to grow and last to put out its head or spike. By mid August the plants had reached 5 feet in height (1.5 m) each with many grains, still maturing in the hot, sunny days.
Black or bristle oat
Black oat Avena strigosa is a different species from the common oat cultivated today. It was grown widely as a livestock feed and still remains as a feral plant in some areas, gone wild.
It grows very quickly, the first to flower and set seed, most of it mature in less than three months. Where other grain crops might fail, at least black oat would give some straw and grain. The seeds are long, thin and hard, so not a people’s favourite – though it was dubbed “famine food”, eaten when all else ran out.
Rye Secale cereale has not been grown in the north on the same scale as oats and barley. Yet it germinates quickly and grows to heading not far behind black oat. The heads, or ears, are upright at first (lower left in the photographs below). Awns are much shorter than those of spratt or bere barley. As the ears mature, the awns splay out, the grains become visible (lower right) and the whole ear forms a gentle curve (upper right). The naked grains, around 5 mm long (upper left), are easy to extract simply by rubbing the ear between fingers.
Bere – a landrace of barley – is rare now in Scotland but was grown over most of the country as recently as the 1850s. It was recorded as distinct from barley in the annual agricultural record in the early 20th century, but is now confined to a few fields in Orkney.
The Living Field has grown bere for years, seed saved over each winter and sown the next spring. Some early records show a similar landrace was grown in parts of north west Europe, suggesting the bere landraces were not solely Scottish. Links to previous Living Field articles are given at The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Bere barley at the Living Field.
The grains are pale green during early filling (lower left in the panel), but become darker streaked with red. They are protected by many long bristly awns, which did not quite succeed in keeping small birds from taking the grains.
[more to be added]
Sources | links
 Lawson, Peter and Son. MDCCCLII (1852) Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.
Low spring and summer rainfall 2022. Severe drought and fire risk over many areas of Europe including southern England. East Scotland rainfall lower than average but similar to 1976, 1984, 1995, 2003 and 2018. Implications for agricultural output and water supply.
Yes, Living Field country has been drier than average this spring and summer …. but not so hot and dry compared to much of continental Europe and England. First, the broader picture ….
Europe dry and burning
The map above, the EU Copernicus Image of the Day for 9 August 2022, shows the air temperature anomaly (difference from an average) for July 2022. The higher-than-average temperatures shown in shades of deep red are greatest in Spain and Portugal and parts of France and Italy, but the high temperatures extend to Britain and Ireland. Only parts of north Ireland and north and west Scotland were close to the average.
Prolonged dryness and heat increase the risk of fire in forest, moorland and scrub. The risk is now in the highest category in some parts of Europe as shown by the map below, released as the Copernicus image of the day for 19 July. The “numerous major wildfires (are) fueled by extreme heatwaves and pre-existing drought conditions. The total area burned in France, Spain and Portugal in the past 10 days exceeds 40,000 hectares.”
“The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), one of the modules of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service, provides daily fire danger forecasts based on a Fire Weather Index (FWI). As shown in this image, the EFFIS FWI forecast for today, 19 July 2022, shows ‘Very Extreme Danger’ of fire – the highest level of risk on the ECMWF/FWI scale – in Spain, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.”
Prolonged lack of rainfall, high temperature and the associated high evaporative demand lead to shortage of water for people and agriculture. Drought conditions are particularly severe this year by the early and intense heatwaves that affected the continent at the beginning of Summer 2022.
“This visualisation (below) based on data from the European Drought Observatory (EDO) of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS), shows the Combined Drought Indicator values during the first decade of July 2022. According to this data, 45 per cent of the European territory is in “Warning” conditions, while 13 per cent is in “Alert” conditions.”
The Combined Drought Indicator is derived from three measures based on remote sensing applied to known ground conditions: incoming rainfall, soil condition (including factors such as water holding capacity) and the vegetation’s ability to intercept and absorb incoming solar radiation (reduced if vegetation is stressed and scorched). The method and the significance of these warnings are explained in a report from the European Drought Observatory .
The presence of so much land under drought has reduced levels in the main rivers and reservoirs and will cause widespread yield reduction and in some areas total crop failure.
In Britain, severe drought and high fire risk have developed mainly in parts of south and east England. Two of the maps above omit most of Scotland, so (we ask) what is happening in Living Field country, especially since water bans have just been issued for some areas?
The Met Office summary for July [3, map right] shows a major north-south gradient. Rainfall is slightly above average in the north and north-west of Scotland, as much as 50% below average in south-east Scotland and northern England but then decreasing to a severe 20% or lower in southern England.
There is more rain the the north than the south in most years but the variation in 2022 is extreme.
Rainfall in Scotland 2022
The Living Field earlier previously published rainfall data for Eastern Scotland comparing the dry 2018 with previous dry years based on daily rainfall records from the Had-UK series . The following is an update as far as the end of July 2022.
Between 1 March and the end of July, the Eastern region had received about 200 mm of rain or half the 30-year average rainfall, but the Northern region was close to the average and the Southern (which includes all the south-west) not far off (Fig. 1). Compare these with the very low rainfall in the South-East England.
Fig. 1 Cumulative rainfall from 1 March 2022 for the Met Office regions of Eastern, Southern and Northern Scotland and South-east England. Original data: Met Office Hadley Centre UK Precipitation . Vertical lines show the quarter and cross-quarter days.
The rainfall in South-east England was very low after the summer solstice – that’s from the third week of June – which is also the time of highest annual temperature and evaporative demand. And it is also often the time of highest human demand.
The effects of the drought on agriculture will depend on the timing as well as the amount of the rainfall. The graph below (Fig. 2) compares 2022 with dry summers in 1976, 1984 and 2018. The years differ mainly in the timing of rainfall between the spring equinox on 21 March and the second cross quarter day (XQ2) in early May.
By the summer solstice (21 June) the totals received were similar, between 150 and 200 mm and remained similar up to the third cross quarter day (XQ3) in early August. Other dry years such as 1995 and 2003 were also similar to those shown.
Fig. 2 Cumulative rainfall from 1 March for the Met Office region East Scotland in dry years 2022 (heavy black line), 2018 (purple), 1984 (red) and 1976 (light blue). Original data: Met Office Hadley Centre UK precipitation . Vertical lines show the quarter- and cross-quarter days.
Effect on agriculture
The severity of drought and heat in southern England and much of mainland Europe will certainly depress yields of many crops. It’s already evident that olive oil will suffer serious losses in much of Spain for example.
The extent of yield loss in the wheat-growing areas of England will not be confirmed until harvest records are complete. The drought is so widespread however that crop production will suffer across the EU and well beyond, adding to the pressures due to reduced exports from Ukraine.
Scotland’s arable and grassland is likely to be much less affected than many other regions. The dry summers of 2018, 2003, 1995 for example caused little reduction in grain yield. The croplands here have been more severely affected by excess rainfall, as in the wet 2012.
Based on previous experience, the pattern of accumulated rainfall this year should not cause a major depression of cereal yield (barley, wheat and oats). The soil received a reasonable amount of rainfall up to the second cross-quarter day in early May (XQ2) . A crucial time for crop growth is between XQ2 and the solstice when crops and grass are either bulking (if overwintered) or forming their leaf and root systems.
Provided the cereals in lowland Scotland have formed their root system, and can set and start filling grain within a few weeks after the solstice, then low rainfall in later July and August will cause relatively little suppression because the roots will be exploring deep in the soil and the grain is maturing and drying.
In contrast, crops such as potato and vegetables that consist of a large percentage of water at harvest will suffer more. In dry summers, these high-value crops are typically irrigated up to harvest but abstraction – the removal of water from rivers and groundwater – is likely to be regulated this year.
Effect on water supply and aquatic ecosystems
By early August, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) reported that water supply in areas of north Fife had moved into the highest category of Significant Scarcity, while most catchments to the east were at Moderate Scarcity . At Significant Scarcity SEPA has the power to temporarily stop abstraction, for irrigation and use by industry, for example. Domestic water supplies are unlikely to be affected since reservoirs in the east of Scotland are still above 70% capacity.
In the UK more widely, the current heat, drought and increased demand for water puts added pressure on a water supply system run by a private sector that many consider to be seriously failing due to water leakages (up to a quarter of stocks) and discharge of raw sewage to rivers . The experience of 2022, especially in the south, should make people realise how fortunate we are to have water on tap in most years.
Human activity takes water from major stores such as reservoirs, from rivers and other surface water bodies and from groundwater through boreholes. From all sources, but particularly from surface water, extraction during drought harms wildlife. Water bodies dry up, connectivity along river systems is broken, food supplies dwindle. It seems too often that wildlife and habitat are down the list of priorities for water.
 Rainfall data downloaded from Met Office Hadley Centre UK Precipitation – HadUKP Data Download. Ref: Alexander LV, Jones PD. 2001 Updated precipitation series for the UK and discussion of recent extremes. Atmospheric Science Letters doi:10.1006/asle.2001.0025. For earlier posts on the Living Field site: Resilience to the 2018 drought.