James Hutton Institute needs your blaeberry sightings

25th Apr 2014

Scientists at the James Hutton Institute are asking keen nature spotters for their help in finding the native blaeberry while they are out and about in the Scottish hills and countryside this summer.

With sales of blueberries in the UK reaching record levels there has been renewed interest in its wild relative the blaeberry and scientists are keen to locate sites where it is flourishing naturally to learn more about its genetic diversity and the climactic conditions it prefers.

The aim is to identify wild blaeberries that would be suitable for cultivation as a novel crop to supply the fresh and high quality juice market as part of a drive to increase the share of UK grown berries on the shop shelves.

“The popularity of blueberries in the UK has soared over recent years but currently only 1-3% of demand is met by home-grown berries, so there is a huge opportunity to increase that share,” explained Dr Julie Graham, who is heading up the project.

“Blaeberries have great potential to be part of that expanding market as they have thrived naturally in the wild for generations and have all the health benefits of high bush berries. If we can profile which native populations do particularly well they could be developed into a novel crop and grown more widely.”

Dr Susan McCallum, who is leading the investigation of wild blaeberry sites, added: “We’ve already identified several blaeberry sites that we are researching but we’re hoping keen walkers and outdoors enthusiasts can help us find more throughout the summer so we can capture as much information as possible and find the very best berries Scotland has to offer.”

Known by a number of names including European blueberry, bilberry, low bush blueberry and wild blueberry; blaeberries can be found growing in natural populations across Europe. It is a small perennial shrub that produces fruit with an intense blue colour throughout the berry.

Blaeberry occurs throughout Scotland, being most abundant in the Highlands, particularly in the north and west especially around spruce and pine dominated heath forests. It occurs in both moorland and woodland, and grows well at elevations from sea level up to 1,000 metres.

Bushes can fruit for about 30 years which locks carbon, minimises soil disturbance and reduces soil erosion in areas where it grows. These crops also have low water requirements and allow diversification from more intensive crops as well as their associated health and economic benefits.

Potentially planting this native blueberry on a wider scale as a novel crop species for both fresh fruit and also processing into high quality juice production, could enhance biodiversity in a given area as well as any associated economic benefits.

Blaeberry is predominantly pollinated by bumble bees (although wasps can also act as pollinators) so larger areas of planting could enhance habitats for Bombus, which are considered an endangered species in the UK. An abundance of insects also feed on wild blaeberry in pinewoods which in turn provide a food source for wild birds.

If you know where blaeberries are flourishing or find some while out and about over the summer months please take a note of the Ordnance Survey co-ordinates and a photograph of the bushes and report your sighting to Susan.McCallum@hutton.ac.uk.

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