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Glenmorangie pioneers extinct oysters’ return to Scottish seas

Visit Glenmorangie and you’ll be struck by the beauty of the single malt’s Highland world. Here, on the peaceful shores of the Dornoch Firth, its creators have been making delicious whisky for more than 175 years. Determined to sustain its natural surroundings for the next 175 years too, Glenmorangie is on a pioneering mission to restore extinct oyster reefs to the Firth’s protected waters. In an environmental first this spring, Glenmorangie and its partners, Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and the Marine Conservation Society charity, will place 6,000 oysters in the water, boosting the number restored to 20,000. And there are millions still to come. Clos19 caught up with Dr Bill Sanderson of Heriot-Watt, the project’s lead scientist, to find out more:


What was the inspiration for this pioneering environmental mission?

When I was first approached by Glenmorangie five years ago, we very quickly realised that we had a shared passion for the environment. That was the original inspiration for our Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project, called DEEP for short. It’s a three-way partnership, with the Marine Conservation Society charity as well.

How did you know oysters used to live in the Dornoch Firth?

We looked at archaeological records, the written history in the area, old charts, fisheries landing records, we went round all the museums in the area.... and we were astonished to find there had been oysters in the Dornoch Firth from the last ice age right up until the 1800s. Sadly at that time, oysters were fished out across Europe, as we exported millions to Edinburgh, London, France and further afield, without realising that reefs would soon become extinct.

Why is it such a good idea to restore oyster reefs?

Oyster reefs are real biodiversity hotspots, so they are very valuable to restore. They create lots of little nooks and crannies for other creatures to live in, and they set up whole food chains by their very existence. As filter feeders, they improve water quality as well.

How long will it take to create reefs?

About three years ago we put 300 oysters into the Firth to check they would grow and survive. Happily, they did. We then moved on to the experimental reef stage. Oysters tend to grow on the shells of other oysters, but over the last 100 years, a lot of that shell material has been lost, so we had to create test reefs for about 20,000 oysters. The next stage, which we’re about to start, is restoring the reefs at scale. Our goal is to restore about 4million oysters – that’s how big the Firth’s oyster population would have been in its heyday.

How easy is it to put oysters back in the water?

It’s not easy, and we’ve been learning as we’ve been doing. After stringent biosecurity measures, I and my scientific dive team put the oysters underwater on the seabed, by hand. As the tides in the Firth move at two knots, one challenge we’ve had to overcome is getting our oysters to stay put!

How do the oysters help Glenmorangie become even greener?

Glenmorangie has a vision of a Distillery in harmony with nature. And in 2017, it moved a step closer to that vision by opening a state-of-the-art treatment plant, which purifies the by-products of distillation. That plant reduces by 95% the nutrients in the water that Glenmorangie releases into the sea. Fascinatingly, oysters are also renowned water purifiers (one oyster can filter about 200 litres of water a day). So when we’ve finished restoring the reefs, our 4million oysters will act in tandem with Glenmorangie’s plant, naturally cleaning the remaining 5% of nutrients from the water.

Can we go and visit the reefs?

The reefs are underwater – and it’s a tricky place to dive. But if you go to the Glenmorangie Distillery for a tour, during the summer months you’ll meet a guide from the Marine Conservation Society, who brings the project alive to the thousands of visitors. The guide also gives talks at schools and organises beach cleans to show how important it is to protect our marine environment. Glenmorangie’s staff have also adopted four beaches around Scotland to clean.

Are oysters being restored elsewhere in the world?

DEEP is the first project to have put native European reefs back into the marine environment. Since we started, oyster restoration has really caught on in Europe – there are now 17 projects across the continent. It’s really exciting to be involved in DEEP, especially with such an enthusiastic partner as Glenmorangie.

Will we be pairing Glenmorangie whisky with Dornoch Firth oysters any time soon?

The Firth is a marine-protected area, so these oysters are for biodiversity conservation and for filtering water. However, we hope that their offspring will eventually disperse and form new reefs elsewhere. That means, we may one day be pairing Glenmorangie whisky with local oysters again!