For a few years now we’ve been quietly investing in non-profit environmental, educational, and social initiatives on Islay, through The Botanist Foundation – a Community Interest Company, with its own governance.
The Botanist Gin couldn’t exist without a sensitivity to nature and the seasons and an acute awareness of the edible plants, flowers and weeds around us, married to the application of distilling skills well-honed through the making of whisky. It’s important that we forage for the 22 botanicals sustainably and therefore safeguard our island and it’s flora for future generations.
Islay is always at the heart of matters for us, so first, let us introduce you to some of the challenges faced by the island. It’s a remote area and a fragile economy, in European terms. There is always the threat of a drain on the population; as in many rural communities, it’s the young people who tend to leave. For this reason, one focus of the Botanist Foundation’s activities to date has been to support school leavers from Islay High through awarding bursaries, and giving career talks. There’s also been recent progress on a sensory garden – colours, smells, noises from pollinators and birds – at the High School. An HNC course in the study of practical horticulture has been established with the Foundation’s support at Argyll College, Islay. And the primary school in Port Charlotte has been able to improve its garden and give its library a forest-theme through a small grant.
Islay is famous among birders for its migratory geese and its birds of prey, the red-legged chough and the corncrake, though traditionally, the island’s reputation was built on the fatted cattle it exported. These days, the beef herds coexist with more arable land – to raise malting barley locally has become a viable activity, largely thanks to the whisky being made with it at our home distillery, Bruichladdich. Some bird numbers and behaviours have been influenced by this too, as would happen in any ecosystem, so we are always looking for balance, and positive change. At the RSPB reserve on Islay, where we have been collaborating on foraging walks for several years, they have a working farm. The Foundation is joining forces with them in 2020 on a project to assess the diversity and spread of wildflower meadows and borders on the farm.
In terms of landscapes, there is the delight of the coastal habitat know as the Machair and all its native species of wildflowers and grasses.
There are some native woodlands, protected by Special Site of Scientific Interest status, and there are also swathes of dense sitka plantation, dating from the 1970s. ‘The hill’ as the moorlands are known, is home to wild deer and unusual butterflies. It is managed by big country estates here for shooting. Since the 18th century, Islay’s fertile hills and shores have also been put to extensive sheep grazing. Therefore the island is largely a managed landscape, even though some of it is purposely retained as “wild”.
Some species, especially plants, have suffered. Islay Juniper has been almost totally decimated by over-grazing, which is why our original botanical scientists, Dr Richard and Mavis Gulliver, started a juniper re-introduction programme, which they passed on to James Donaldson, our in-house forager, when he joined the team in 2017. See more Juniper Q and A > We’re taking our involvement in juniper conservation to a new level in 2020, by part-funding a PhD looking at its genetic diversity and the potential resilience that might give it. The student is Eleanor James in the department of Ecology, Evolutions and Environmental Change at the CEH Edinburgh, and you can see her in conversation with James in this recording about juniper research on our instagram channel >.
One of the Foundation’s big pieces of work has been “The Pollinator Project” a (so far!) two-year investigation into the biodiversity of Islay’s roadside verges. This year will see real dividends from that research, led by Islay Natural History Trust – a trial change to the Council’s mowing management of 37km of roadsides in the Rhinns of Islay. Not only will they delay the mowing of certain stretches until September, they’ve agreed to refrain from cutting some stretches altogether, and Islay Natural History Trust have introduced a native customised seed mix which is native pollinator-friendly to improve the island’s verges.