Hebridean rye

Crop: Secale cereale L. (Rye)

Secale Cereale is now grown primarily on North and South Uist, part of the Outer Hebrides. It is grown as a forage crop, with some additional cultivation of similar populations on a small scale across Orkney and Shetland. On the Outer Hebrides it is grown on the Machair habitat as part of traditional maintenance practices. Here it is grown as part of a mixed crop including one or both of two other species: barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) or oat (Avena strigosa. Schreb.). This crop rotation and fallow system using small packages of land on the Machair makes an important contribution to the conservation of a unique environment (Owen, Kent and Dale, 2000). It is used for forage for cows and sheep and once harvested it can be used for silage.

Rye is considered the least important cereal crop in the UK, and Hebridean rye is the least well known of the Scottish landraces (Sasa.gov.uk, 2019). The rye landraces have no specific local or Gaelic name.

Cultivation System: ND.

Geographical Information

Country: United Kingdom

Secale Cereale has never been a prominent landrace crop in UK agriculture, and as such, the areas it has been grown in have never been large comparative to other cereal crops. Now it is declining further with the areas in which it is still grown shrinking as farmers choose to use the land for more lucrative cropping or less demanding pasture.

Secale Cereale is still widely grown as part of a mixed crop with either/both bere barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) and black oat (Avena strigosa Schreb.) on the Machair habitats of the Outer Hebrides (Scholten, Spoor and Green, 2009). These are generally small packages of land associated with crofts, usually ranging between a few acres and a few hectares.


Farmer(s) description:

Rye is mainly cultivated for its grain, though it is also commonly used as a forage crop or for silage. It is sometimes used in a double cropping system where a summer crop is grown and harvested, then followed by rye as a winter crop. The rye may then be harvested in the spring and used for animal feed.

In Scotland, rye is often grown in a mix with barley and/or oats to protect the harvest in dry years. It is also said to provide good support to oat stalks as they grow. It is currently grown in the largest quantities in the Outer Hebrides.

The main problems facing maintainers of Secale Cereale are its susceptibility to diseases, particularly ergot disease. This occurs when the parasitic organism Claviceps purpurea infects the plant (Lee, 2009). When the fungus is incorporated into the grain and ingested it can cause poisoning of humans known as ergotism. Buyers may refuse grain that is contaminated (Cereals.ahdb.org.uk, 2019).


Propagation system: Seed, cross-pollination

Multiplication procedures and consequences on landrace diversity:

Rye relies on cross pollination from windborne pollen (Oelke et al., 1990). Most growers save a portion of seed from each year’s crop and store it for the next year, and if crops fail and no seed is collected then there may be some swapping of seed amongst growers. In the past there has been the need to bring non-local seed in, for example from Wales, when the harvest failed and there was insufficient seed saved. This meant that the seed bought in was not locally adapted. One of the aims of SASA’s Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme is to prevent this by keeping a store of locally adapted seed in case of crop failure. If the crop fails and maintainers have participated in SASA’s Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme, they may have submitted seed from previous years. In this case they can request their seed back from SASA. It will be their own seed and so locally adapted to their land.

Management plan existence:

Management currently relies on maintainers of this landrace, most of whom are found on the Outer Hebrides.

Added Values

Market - existing and novel:

While rye does contain gluten, it can be tolerated by some people with a wheat allergy (Pietzak, 2012). This makes rye flour an attractive alternative for those who cannot consume products made with flour derived from wheat. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that consuming rye bread in place of wheat bread decreases the postprandial insulin response (Leinonen et al., 1999). There is also consumer interest in rye bread simply due to its earthy flavour and unique texture.

Others (e.g. commercial/geographical brands or special traits):

Rye is a relatively little-known landrace with a small market appeal. There is potential to improve this appeal by highlighting nutritional benefits of this grain and establishing potential commercial partnerships between landrace growers and breweries, distilleries, and bakeries.

Other than the Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme established by SASA in 2006, there does not currently appear to be any other projects directly supporting rye cultivation.


The Scottish government is committed to protecting its plant genetic resources under various 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. As a result, the Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme was set up at SASA in 2006 and includes Hebridean rye in its collections to safeguard local adaptations in seed and prevent farmers having to buy in seed should a crop fail (Sasa.gov.uk, 2019). This means that local adaptations are retained in the gene pool. As of 2008 the SASA cereal landrace collection held 14 Hebridean rye accessions.

Rye is a little known and relatively unpopular landrace. Despite this, it is still grown in a mixed crop and with continued support from the Scottish Government and SASA it looks likely that rye cultivation will continue in this fashion. Sampling of locally adapted rye is undoubtedly important in protecting farmers against having to buy in non-localised seed in the event of a failed harvest

As described above, seed is also held by SASA. Due to the way rye is often grown in a mixed crop, some accessions are mixed seed. There are also pure samples, however. To view accession lists and find further information, or to request access to seed samples please contact genetic.resources@sasa.gov.scot.

Case study provided by University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

  • Cereals.ahdb.org.uk. (2019). [online] Available at: https://cereals.ahdb.org.uk/media/487309/is33-ergot-in-cereals.pdf [Accessed 1 Dec. 2019].
  • Hillman, G., Hedges, R., Moore, A., Colledge, S. and Pettitt, P. (2001). New evidence of Lateglacial cereal cultivation at Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates. The Holocene, 11(4), pp.383-393.
  • Hon, W., Griffith, M., Chong, P. and Yang, D. (1994). Extraction and Isolation of Antifreeze Proteins from Winter Rye (Secale cereale L.) Leaves. Plant Physiology, 104(3), pp.971-980.
  • Lee, M. (2009). The history of ergot of rye (Claviceps purpurea) II: 1900–1940. The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 39(4), pp.365-369.
  • Leinonen, K., Liukkonen, K., Poutanen, K., Uusitupa, M. and Mykkänen, H. (1999). Rye bread decreases postprandial insulin response but does not alter glucose response in healthy Finnish subjects. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 53(4), pp.262-267
  • Oelke, E., Oplinger, E., Bahri, H., Durgan, B., Putnam, D., Doll, J. and Kelling, K. (1990). Rye. Alternative Field Crops Manual.
  • Owen, N., Kent, M. and Dale, P. (2000). Ecological effects of cultivation on the machair sand dune systems of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 6(1), pp.155-170.
  • Pietzak, M. (2012). Celiac Disease, Wheat Allergy, and Gluten Sensitivity. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 36(1_suppl), pp.68S-75S.
  • Sasa.gov.uk. (2019). Scottish Landraces. [online] Available at: https://www.sasa.gov.uk/book/export/html/1695 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2019].
  • Scholten, M., B. Spoor and N. Green.  2009.  Machair corn: management and conservation of a historical machair component.  The Glasgow Naturalist 25: 63–71.
  • Zhang, Y., Lee, G., Joo, J., Lee, J., Ahn, J. and Park, C. (2007). Effect of Winter Rye Cultivation to Improve Soil Fertility and Crop production in Alpine Upland in Korea. Korean Journal of Environmental Agriculture, 26(4), pp.300-305.