With two key dates coming up in the world’s environmental calendar – Migratory Bird Day on 8th May and World Bee Day on 20th May – and peat cutting season just around the corner, Hobbister Moor is much on our minds. Home to Highland Park’s uniquely heather-laden peat, it’s also part of the RSPB Hobbister Nature Reserve and a haven for wildlife.
Sustainability is key for us and we work hard to manage and maintain this precious peatland, focusing on long-term regeneration and the protection of natural habitats. Our practices have evolved over the years and we are currently cutting less than we did in the past. We’re proud to work closely with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to maintain the natural wild harmony on the moor.
The peat here is over 9,000 years old in places and nearly four metres deep, the top layer, Fogg, lies just below the surface and is packed with heather and rootlets; the second layer, Yarphie, is darker and more compact; while the third layer, Moss, the oldest and deepest, is dense and lumpy, almost like coal. We cut our peat in April and leave it to dry naturally under the bright Orcadian sun over the long summer months. By combining cuttings from the three levels of peat, we can create the richly aromatic character we’re looking for in our whisky.
It’s no exaggeration to say that peat is the ‘terroir’ of island whiskies – part of the set of environmental factors that influence flavour and character. And while there are five or six types of peat in Scotland, our Orcadian peat is truly unique due to the lack of decomposed tree fibre in its make up. Because winters are so fierce here – our islands are battered by ferocious salt-laden winds, gusting in at up to 100 miles per hour – few trees can survive on this exposed and barren expanse of moorland, so our peat is woodless but incredibly rich in heather. It burns slowly, intensely and sweetly in our kilns as it dries the malted barley and this gives rise to the distinctive smoky sweetness that is the hallmark of Highland Park. Because no other distillery uses Orcadian peat, it makes our whisky’s flavour absolutely unique.
The noisy Arctic Tern comes to Orkney to breed early in the summer while the Goldeneye or ‘Gowdy Duck’ enjoys our lochs and coasts during autumn, winter and spring. The Red Throated Diver prefers sheltered coastal areas, Hobbister in particular, as does the Great Skua. And thanks to the temperate and frost-free climate in Orkney, our islands now attract more than half of the UK’s wintering population of Graylag Geese too. You can find out more about the RSPB’s work in Hobbister here.
… and the bees!
One of the UK’s rarest bees, the great yellow bumble bee, is high on the RSPB’s conservation list and Orkney (along with the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Caithness and Sutherland) is one of the very few places where this rare species can still be found. A reliance on traditional crofting rather than intensive farming is believed to be a key factor. Around 90% of the world’s plants, including food crops, rely on pollination and bees are one of the biggest contributors to this. Bees have been around for millions of years and the abundance of compact and low-growing flowering heather found in Hobbister provides a perfect habitat for them – we have some very ancient bees to thank for the honey notes in our whisky!