Ellie Harrison and Joe Crowley explore the NC500 - a new 500-mile scenic loop that takes in some of Scotland's remotest and most beautiful places.
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If it's majesty you're after,
the North Highlands of Scotland have it on a grand scale.
From stunning mountain passes
to rich, fertile plains, it's a landscape
that inspires awe.
And there's a new way of seeing it -
a 500-mile route that takes in the best this landscape has to offer.
I'll be exploring some of the eastern route,
and meeting the young couple beginning a new life as crofters.
Whilst I'm in the west, coming face-to-face with this...
the fearsome Bealach na Ba,
the Pass of the Cattle,
and one of the UK's highest roads.
Also, Tom's looking at the dangers
of driving in the countryside.
For years, the number of people killed or seriously injured
on our rural roads has been falling, but not any more.
So what's changed?
I'll be investigating.
And Adam wonders if the future could be straw-powered.
If you took a year's supply of straw
to fuel this straw-powered fire station
and laid the bales out end to end
they'd reach from John O'Groats to Land's End.
But it's not just by-products like straw
that farmers are providing to satisfy our energy requirements,
there are now a whole host of crops
specifically grown for our power needs.
..the glory of the North West Highlands.
It's a landscape to fire the imagination,
stir the spirit
and feed the soul.
And for those with a taste for adventure,
there's a new way of seeing it.
Because stringing all this beauty together
is a new route, making use of old roads.
It's called the North Coast - or NC - 500,
a 500-mile long network of roads
that loops around the coastline
of the far North Highlands.
You can drive it or bike it.
I'm cycling some of the route
that stretches along the west coast
from the Applecross peninsula
north to Ullapool.
And right now, I'm feeling I might have bitten off more than I can chew.
You might not be able to see this,
but the wind is so gusty,
there are moments when it actually wants to blow you off the bike.
This is the notorious Bealach na Ba,
or Pass of the Cattle,
one of the toughest roads to climb in the UK -
savage hairpin bends,
six lung-bursting miles from sea level to the summit
more than 2,000ft up in the clouds.
It just saps your energy
when you're up against a headwind.
Actually knocks you off your bike.
I'll try that again.
Testing in the best of conditions,
the weather today is doing me no favours at all.
LOUD CLATTER OF HAIL
It's amazing - you can see the weather coming in for miles,
and I knew this was on its way.
It's packed with very painful hailstones!
Whose idea was this in winter?!
Oh, my... It's really hurting!
Ow, ow, ow, ow...!
My legs are killing...
That's not even funny.
Then, as quickly as it blew in...
it's blown out,
leaving a dusting of snow in its wake.
I will not be beaten.
Back in the saddle!
And I'm not alone.
Tearing up the pass towards me is Mark Beaumont -
he's renowned in cycling circles,
a record-breaker, a demon on two wheels.
I knew you'd catch me up.
-How are you doing?
This weather's nuts. I was going to give up
-back down there, but it changed again.
-Welcome to Scotland!
-This is pretty gritty cycling.
-Yeah, I'm there.
You've made it up the Bealach na Ba, the Applecross pass.
Yeah! Quite an achievement!
That's the toughest conditions I've ever been up.
We must be mad.
Good on you.
Yeah. Oh, what fun(!)
The view from the top makes it all worthwhile,
but it has been the toughest bike ride of my life,
and I've just done a section of the NC500.
Mark's done the lot,
the whole 500 miles,
and he did it in a mind-blowing
37 hours and 58 minutes.
That's right, 500 miles nonstop in a day and a half.
What possessed you to do the crazy challenge
of completing the NC500 in that time?
Well, I spend my life exploring the world by bicycle -
I'm just back from cycling the length of Africa -
but, erm...I'd never done anything that big and crazy in Scotland,
so I was quite inspired when I heard about the North Coast 500
to give it a go.
And, in my style, I wanted to set a record on it.
The creation of the NC500 as a brand, if you like - how important is that?
I mean, it's incredibly important.
Life in the North of Scotland has always been based off the land,
but the rural economy up here is fragile.
So, the NC500 brings people to the North of Scotland.
It reminds us there is so much north of Inverness.
There must have been some low points along the route.
Can you tell me about any?
I mean, sleep deprivation gets anyone,
and battling through the night
knowing that you're not going to get off the bike
until the following evening is just a mental battle.
-'Awake, awake, awake...'
Four, five, six in the morning, I was repeating to myself,
"Stay awake, awake..."
anything just to keep myself going on the bike.
Yeah, in the darkest hours,
you go to pretty dark places mentally,
but then you come through that.
It stops raining, the sun comes out...
You look back, and they're actually your fondest moments,
the times when you dig deepest.
That's so interesting,
because we can always remember the hardest days' filming.
We talk about them endlessly.
Almost like they're a pleasurable time, in a way.
-Your blizzard today might be one of them!
-Maybe it might be!
What about the view while you're cycling?
How much of a chance do you get to see around you?
You're so tuned in to the world around you.
You see, you hear, you smell everything.
And you see the world in incremental changes.
You don't sort of fly into a place
then compare it to where you've come from.
You get to see change, see culture and people and places
and geography, and that for me is addictive.
Remember, you can also drive the NC500.
Now, cycling or driving might be
a great way to enjoy the countryside,
but despite their beauty, rural roads
are still the most dangerous places for motorists,
as Tom's been finding out.
Vast stretches of landscape,
a patchwork of fertile fields
and tranquil villages.
But beneath this view of our countryside
lies a darker picture.
And that's here on our rural roads,
where you're twice as likely to die driving as in built-up areas.
Last year on average, three people a day
died in collisions in the countryside.
Rural roads have always been known to have more accidents,
but until recently, that rate appeared to be falling.
Since 2005, there had been a dramatic decline
in the number of people killed and seriously injured
on our country roads.
But that's changed and there are those who believe our rural roads
are becoming more dangerous once again.
Lincolnshire has some of the most hazardous roads in the country.
It tops the list for road casualties
in a Parliamentary advisory report.
But rural road safety isn't just a story
about people who are killed on our roads,
it's also about those who are seriously injured.
Like Connor Wilson.
He was just 18 when his car spun off the road in 2011.
He was in a coma for nine weeks
and suffered a life-changing brain injury
which left him with short-term memory problems.
Four years later, he's still recovering.
I was driving
and I fell asleep at the wheel
and I came off the road
and hit a tree
and that's all I knew for about nine weeks.
And you've got the story of your crash on your arm here.
Talk me through this.
-Got a tree right there.
It was at night I crashed, so I've got...
-Oh, you've got the moon.
-Got a moon.
You've also got some wording around here.
"Being defeated is often a temporary condition.
"Giving up is what makes it permanent."
-Is that what you believe?
It's what I believe because you can't really...
If you give up, then that makes you a quitter.
-So you haven't given up?
I'll keep on going to get what I want.
And how has it affected his life from your point of view?
And your life?
As a family, it rips you apart.
It rips you apart, because not only did it leave Connor
with a life-changing injury, it has a ripple effect
on the whole family,
because now it's getting to know somebody new.
Because my son that I brought up for 18 years
changed his personality, totally.
Erm...and at times I didn't like that person,
when he woke up.
He was very hard work.
-Oh, that's tough.
-It was, very.
I knew I loved him, I could SEE my son,
but it wasn't my son. And it's getting to love somebody else.
And he is, he's a good guy, you know?
Things HAVE changed, but I can hardly remember
the old Connor, as we call him, now.
Accidents like Connor's
had become less common.
Between 2005 and 2012
there was a huge fall
in the number of people being killed
on Britain's rural roads -
dropping from 1,949 to 1,023.
But now those figures are starting to rise again.
1,063 people were killed on Britain's country roads last year.
Lincolnshire is following the national trend
with a rise in road deaths.
John Siddle is from Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership,
which was formed in 2000 to reduce the number of fatalities.
So why are our country roads so dangerous?
As you see, the weather's already dropping down,
the fog's coming in, or mist.
It's an open, undulating road,
twists and turns.
Some of the vehicles haven't even got their lights on at the moment,
so very difficult for other drivers to spot them at a distance.
A lot of our rural roads in Lincolnshire are tree-lined,
deep, water-filled ditches at the side of the road...
Very challenging for drivers.
These, together with narrow carriageways
and hidden dips, are some of the inherent dangers of our rural roads.
When combined with poor driving
and excessive speed,
accidents are more likely.
The risk is great.
Oh, he's going some! Did you see that?!
Yeah, exactly. That car bounced at that junction.
-For a half a second, he was out of control.
-You could feel it, hear it!
-He gathered it back up.
Not all drivers would be able to do that.
So we know why our rural roads are dangerous,
but despite safety measures
and government campaigns,
it appears the number of casualties
is on the rise again.
Why is that?
Some say that turnaround is down to money,
as I'll be finding out later.
-Few places can rival the raw beauty and rich scenery
of the north-eastern Highlands -
a breathtaking landscape
where heather-clad hillsides
plummet into the icy waters of the North Sea.
While Ellie's exploring the west,
I'm taking the NC500 down through Sutherland
on the east coast from Golspie to the Black Isle,
through some of Scotland's most fertile farming country.
But life in this remote region has never been easy,
and living off the land here is not for the faint-hearted.
Farming in these parts
has traditionally been characterised by the croft,
a smallholding where the crofter raised a few crops
and grazing livestock -
just enough to feed their family.
But recent decades have seen a steady decline in crofting
as the children of these rural communities
left for opportunities further afield.
But now it seems crofting is making a comeback,
with a new generation embracing its ethos
of small-scale sustainability
and close connections with the land.
Traditionally, crofts are handed down through the family,
but every once in a while, one comes up for sale.
Tom and Steffi Geldard were lucky,
they were able to buy their own croft earlier this year.
Tom is a Highlander, while Steffi hails from Bavaria in Germany.
They met while shearing sheep.
Together with their pug, Friedland,
they look after four cattle,
40 sheep and a collection of hens.
Their croft is made up of rough hill grazing,
birch woodland and 12 acres of good pasture.
This is a hard life.
What's the toughest challenge you've faced so far, would you say?
Well, there's only the two of us,
and there's so much work that needs done.
There is a lot of work.
You get home after a day's work and you've still got a couple of hours.
Did you find that intimidating, or do you find it exciting?
Is that a good challenge, or one that grinds you down a bit?
It's a great challenge. We're never bored and, erm...
It's really enjoyable. Everything.
Even if the weather's not great.
And especially on your own place, you know?
Most crofters need a second income
and Tom works away in the week.
But the couple have big plans to make the croft pay in the future.
We would like tourist accommodation up here.
But I would like people to do an active farm holiday here,
and get stuck in the peat-cutting and haymaking
and sheep shearing and feeding pet lambs...
Especially for families with kids.
I think it's so important to teach them
where things come from.
Go back to the roots.
We love the community here.
-We wouldn't want to move for any money in the world, really.
They've been warmly welcomed into the tight-knit crofting community.
They're being mentored by their neighbour, Bertie Bougher,
a crofter of nearly 40 years.
What do you make of this younger generation coming into it?
I think it's a great thing.
It's a boost that the crofting communities are needing.
Because there is an ageing population, to a certain extent,
in a lot of the crofting communities.
Do you enjoy sharing your knowledge? I mean, you've been through it all.
You've done it, haven't you?
Yes, yes... I don't push my knowledge onto people,
but, yes, any knowledge that I can pass on...
-You won't PUSH it on them...
..but what's the most important thing these guys should know
in their first year of crofting, do you think?
I would say one of the first things
is that he buys in stock that has been
acclimatised to certain things in this area.
Like, tick is a big problem in this area,
so he takes on stock that's been acclimatised to tick on the ground.
So it's just learning the local ways, really?
Learning the local ways, that's right.
Tom and Steffi have 40 Cheviot sheep, a traditional crofting breed.
They look great - a really healthy flock!
-They're in good condition, aren't they?
That's what I want them to look like now.
A bit fluffed up so they'll be warm in the winter.
-You've one... Just one black one there.
-Yes, for good luck.
Everybody should have one, I think.
Come on, girls.
Today they're dosing them for fluke.
Bertie's on hand to lend them his know-how and help out.
And since Steffi is six months pregnant, any extra help is useful.
It's going to be a very exciting time, then, in the spring -
first lambs coming through and, of course, your own first arrival.
There's going to be lots of youngsters goin' about, anyway.
Tom and Steffi are part of a new wave of young people
returning to the land.
25-year-old Maddy Norval
is from the Young Crofters Group,
an organisation set up especially to help 21st-century crofters
like Tom and Steffi.
Is there a place for this kind of farming in the modern world?
Through my work with the Young Crofters I'm seeing a real
interest in food sustainability
and where your food's coming from
and the story behind it and how it's raised.
There's a real interest in young people for that kind of information.
Looking ahead, if this way of life
is going to be sustained in the future,
what are the biggest challenges to overcome with crofting?
Access to crofts is a really important aspect
for getting young people into crofting.
There's so much pressure on crofts in rural communities.
They're being snapped up for holiday homes because its a beautiful place.
But it's a beautiful place because of crofting,
so if more people buy them for holiday homes,
there's less croft land that will actually be worked.
So you'd say the future's bright? There are enough people out there
who want to sustain this way of life?
I think that the future definitely is good for crofting,
as long as we keep working hard at it.
Crofting is by no means an easy life,
but the rewards can be many.
Tom, Steffi and Maddy have made a commitment,
and with more young people like them taking up the challenge,
the future of crofting looks to be in good hands.
I've left the fearsome Pass of the Cattle behind me
and I'm heading north along the coast.
The NC500 here is a winding way
of ragged inlets and white sandy beaches
and I've now swapped pedal-power for motorboat.
This landscape is a long way from the fertile farmlands
of the Black Isle that Joe's been exploring in the east,
but it's rich in its own natural resources.
These deep, sheltered sea lochs
can support a £1.8 billion industry -
Or fish farming, to you and me.
Based near the coastal town of Ullapool,
Wester Ross Fisheries
is the oldest independent salmon farm in Scotland.
What do the salmon need that they get here?
Well, the first thing they get is a nice, safe, secure environment.
We've selected this site because it's very sheltered,
although, ironically, in Gaelic, this loch actually means
-"the Loch of the Thousand Winds".
Gilpin Bradley heads up the business here at Loch Broom.
How big an operation have you got going here?
Well, this is a relatively small salmon farm.
On this site we've about 50,000 fish in total.
So we're harvesting today. This is a fairly regular event,
so we've crowded the net.
So you'll see the salmon a little bit denser than normal.
-And that's just so that we can manage to remove them
and get them onto the killing table.
Last year, Scottish salmon farms
produced nearly 180,000 tonnes of fish,
making farmed Atlantic salmon Scotland's largest food export.
But despite its economic success,
salmon farming remains controversial.
Stocked with hundreds of thousands of fish,
farms can make ideal breeding grounds for a deadly marine parasite -
the sea louse.
Lice can infect native wild fish
as well as the farmed ones,
and are an ever-present threat.
We check for lice every week.
We take samples from every pen.
And all the information is available to the public,
as to what lice levels are.
So you'd always inspect the salmon behind the fins.
-And they're just a couple of millimetres, the lice?
There's not a scale missing... Beautiful. No, we're delighted.
No lice there.
Lice are easily the largest challenge that salmon farmers face.
Effectively, when I've got 50,000 salmon on this site,
we have got 50,000 hosts.
And each of those hosts could have one adult female louse
that could multiply.
Some people's perception might be
that because they're intensively farmed in this way,
it makes the lice problem worse.
we could make the lice problem worse, and that's...
We view that as our number one responsibility.
We have to minimise the impact of any lice issues that we have.
Currently, we are achieving zero lice per fish.
We haven't always achieved zero,
and it's been a tough challenge to get to that level,
and we're not complacent.
It's an industry that's still got a lot to learn,
and we have to keep making good advances.
Conventionally, chemicals are used to treat the lice.
There are, however, concerns about their environmental impact.
But here, they believe they've struck upon an ingenious
but simple solution to an industrial-scale problem -
let nature do the work.
There are fish native to these waters
that are known to have a taste for sea lice -
Ballan and cuckoo wrasse eat lice in the wild,
and now many in the industry are pinning their hopes
on them doing the same job for farmed salmon.
So, how is it that the wrasse help the salmon?
Well, the wrasse, basically, eat the lice off the salmon.
We put them in the pens, they swim around,
and they just swim alongside the salmon
and take the lice off as the salmon are swimming.
Wrasse are already used in Norwegian salmon farms,
but in Scotland, it's still quite new.
It's Tessa Dorian's job to gather wild wrasse
for use in the farm here.
There's a few in there! A few cheeky crabs, as well.
-We've got a bucket for the wrasse and we have...
-That's a Ballan wrasse.
A Ballan wrasse.
And that is the kind that we really want.
What sort of size are you going for?
Between 12 and 25 centimetres are the limits
we're allowed to keep, and these are probably just on the limit.
Why is there a limit like that?
It's to leave a sustainable population behind, so...
Cos we don't want to wipe out a species in an area,
we want them to carry on producing.
-Can I get one?
-Is this one here?
There we go.
It's a fairly innocuous looking fish, this one.
And yet, doing such an important job in the salmon-farming industry.
This could well be the future.
Off you go, eat some lice.
Time now to put the wrasse we've just caught to work.
-What is that contraption sticking out of the water?
-That's their house.
-The wrasse house!
-The wrasse house.
So they've somewhere to hide, when they're in the pen.
-To mimic the rocks and the kelp?
-Mimic the rocks and kelp.
That's the imitation kelp on the rope, and that's the house.
There we are!
Straight away he's swum down.
Get on and eat those lice, then.
Now their work starts.
Those in the industry here are hoping these wrasse
could solve the lice problem,
but it could be a while before we know if they're effective.
For now, though, it seems these little fish offer an alternative
to chemicals in the fight against sea lice.
We don't want to put anything into the sea
that doesn't come from the sea.
We want to get away from chemicals.
We're the guardians of this environment,
we make our living from it.
So we want to look after the environment as best we can.
Earlier, we heard that deaths and serious injuries on our country roads
are on the increase again after many years of decline.
In Britain, we have nearly 155,000 miles of country roads,
more than 5,500 of them in Lincolnshire.
It's one of our largest rural counties
and its roads are typical of those in our countryside.
Here in Lincolnshire, after years of progress,
the number of deaths on the roads is rising once again
and we appear to be seeing that same unfortunate trend
on rural roads across Britain.
So why is that?
Some say it's down to budgets.
According to a Parliamentary report,
there's been a dramatic cut in local authority capital spending
on road safety across England,
with figures falling from £177 million spent in 2010,
to just £2 million spent in 2012.
And on top of that, the Road Safety Grant -
a pot of money from central government
that local authorities could bid for for safety schemes -
was abolished in 2010.
With local authority budgets also cut in recent years,
money is tight.
But there are those who think we can't afford not to act,
including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
RoSPA doesn't think that it's acceptable
that we're killing three people every day on country roads,
and I think it's something
that the country can't afford either morally or financially,
when you think road accidents cost
around about £16 billion a year to the economy.
Why do you think we saw such a welcome decline
and then casualties plateau out?
We have had a double whammy.
One, we've been coming out of the recession, which is great,
so we've had more people driving on the roads,
hence more crashes.
Secondly, there's been a really big reduction -
about a 37% reduction - in funding for local authorities.
And there isn't the expertise
or the money there to actually engineer the roads
so they are safer.
And that's not the only squeeze.
In Lincolnshire, John Siddle is also feeling the pinch
with the county council reducing its grant
to the Road Safety Partnership.
We know we've got certain things to do around the county.
We just have to work better, smarter,
do things more cost-effectively,
and hopefully, get the same results but with less money.
You say "hopefully" -
is there a danger that cut could make the roads more dangerous?
the roads are where they are.
The work that we do around drivers...
We look at vulnerable groups.
All the work we do with them,
we hopefully can put into place to reduce the casualties.
The other side of it - the roads -
are dealt with by Highways.
Their budgets are being cut as well,
but again, they're looking at smarter, better ways to work.
So with budgets being cut,
what money there is needs to be targeted carefully,
and that's not always as easy as it seems.
At Nottingham University's Accident Research Unit,
they're looking at what influences the way motorists actually drive.
Now, like most people, I don't think I'm a bad driver -
I certainly do enough of it -
but I guess we're about to find out.
I'm going to be put through my paces in a driving simulator
to see how I cope with some of the typical hazards of rural roads.
My driving will be monitored
by Dr Peter Chapman and his team.
We're just about to start, if you're ready?
Peter is a psychologist,
and this simulator is part of his research into drivers' attitudes.
So, obviously, I'm slightly itching to get by this digger.
He's looking at the speedo.
He can see he's only going at 20
and he wants to be going at 60.
Give it a go, see what happens.
There we go. The open road.
In reality, this is where accidents can happen.
With long stretches of road comes the temptation to speed.
I keep thinking they're about to put something
to jump out in front of me, like a deer.
Not a bad guess.
Passed the Honda plant.
Still speeding again.
Oh! And I hit the dog.
I hit the grey dog.
Time to find out the results.
So how did I do, Peter? I fear I might be in the doghouse!
Well, apart from that small incident with the dog,
you were driving extremely safely.
So what changes can be made to make it safer?
There are small things you can do, but you have to be careful.
People put money into road safety intervention
and it makes things worse.
Things that work better tend to be small changes to road markings
to make it clear where the dangers are.
So, white lines along the side to make the verge extremely clear.
Those kind of things do make a difference.
They make the roads seem more dangerous in a way that's true
and let people drive safely.
So, often, the correct intervention
is making people realise it is dangerous?
If you can get into the psychology of the driver,
get them thinking about what they will think,
it's much more effective than just going for the engineering.
Dr Chapman's theories seem to be borne out in the real world.
Back in Lincolnshire,
a brand-new straight stretch of the A16 near Spalding
appears to have given some drivers a false sense of security,
with tragic consequences.
We've had eight fatalities and 15 serious injuries
since its completion.
-Over roughly what stretch of road?
-This is about 8.5 miles long.
So, you've almost had a death per mile in just five years.
-It is, yes.
For John, the solution is greater driver awareness
of the consequences of driving too fast,
even if that's just the realisation that they could be caught speeding.
We believe that probably around 60% of all of the incidents
could be solved with average speed cameras.
But for RoSPA, smarter thinking by local authorities
won't be enough to keep accident numbers down.
They want a stronger lead from central government.
We need national targets
so they can actually drive down casualties on their roads.
And secondly, to have a very clear road safety strategy.
Equally, highway authorities need to be adequately funded
so they can actually engineer the roads so they are safer.
The Government have recently started a new campaign
to warn drivers of the dangers of rural roads.
They also say they've tightened the laws on drink and drug driving
and are tackling speeding.
Rather than setting centralised targets,
the Government say local authorities are better placed
to decide what to do to make their roads safer.
In addition, the Government say they plan to spend £28 billion
improving Britain's roads in the next six years.
We bear a big responsibility
for making sure we reach the end of any journey safely
by driving carefully.
But government policy and spending
has helped to cut casualties in the past
and it would be good to resume that direction of travel.
An increasing number of farmers are growing crops for energy.
Things like sugar beet, maize and oilseed rape
are being turned into biofuels.
But, as Adam's been finding out, the future could be straw-powered.
Fuel costs are a major concern for all of us.
But for farmers with a few acres to spare, there could be an answer.
I've travelled to Buckinghamshire
to find out how farming crops for fuel
could make farmers' energy bills that much more manageable.
When I was at agricultural college,
the type of plants that we were taught to grow
were crops like peas and wheat and barley -
the sort of things that you can eat.
And farmers are still very good at producing food for our table.
But now, many farmers are turning to crops to produce energy,
like this willow.
Matthew Hunt owns 30 acres of land just outside Chesham.
He's made a business out of experimenting with willow
and other energy crops that will be used to generate power.
-Good to see you.
-How are you doing? All right?
-Yeah, good, thanks.
-Looks like you're burning up a bit of energy.
-What are you up to?
-Planting willow for biofuel.
-How does that work?
You take a cutting from last year, nine-inch cutting,
and place it in the ground.
-You have to make sure the buds are up the right way.
-And pop it in the hole.
-Give it a little tap with a hammer.
-And, essentially, you're done.
-Explain how biofuels work, then.
Biofuels, essentially, you plant them, you harvest them,
turn them into energy,
that energy then gets converted into heating and hot water.
You'll be coppicing this how soon?
This bed will be another two years before it's ready to coppice.
It does grow very fast, doesn't it, willow?
It grows exceptionally fast.
And you're trying lots of different varieties here.
Yeah, we're trialling 30-plus varieties here
to find out what's the highest yielding crop, the most calorific,
the best suited for a biomass boiler.
Tell me about the biofuels, then. What are you trying to achieve?
We're trying to achieve minimum land usage from farmers
so you're not wasting land,
so trying to get the most out of every acre that they've got.
The plants Matt grows are designed to be burned in boiler systems
that supply heat and hot water to farmhouses or rural businesses.
To keep things simple, the landowners growing the fuel
need to be able to harvest it themselves.
So, now it's ready to be harvested?
Yeah, all you need is a chainsaw licence and a chainsaw.
No big machinery, no expensive machinery. That's all you need.
So, you're trying to keep it simple.
Yeah, from the field to the fuel stores,
simple as possible and cost-effective as possible.
Now that it's been harvested,
those stumps will start to grow again, will they?
Straight away, in the spring.
In three years' time, you'll be cropping again.
The matter that's been chopped off,
will that be able to go straight into the woodchip boiler?
No, we open-air dry it for about eight months,
so then it goes straight into the fuel store.
That's what you're doing here now,
-and then that'll go back to the house?
But when it comes to finding the most efficient energy crop,
willow isn't the only tree that Matt's been experimenting with.
As well as poplar, Matt's also planted
several hundred eucalyptus trees.
-It smells delicious, doesn't it? It's lovely.
Why did you come up with the idea of growing eucalyptus?
Eucalyptus is known for its oil content,
so we're taking a guess at the calorific value,
the energy produced from this plant's going to be very high.
-So, you're really excited about it?
-I'm very excited.
-Look at the growth rate in a year.
-Incredible, isn't it?
It's planted as a small, tiny sapling.
There's thousands of trees and thousands of plants out there
that'll make a good biofuel - you just have to research.
You're just going to keep trying until you find the ultimate ones?
Correct. Eucalyptus might well be one of them.
For those of us without a spare five acres to grow trees,
Matt's also been developing some surprising alternative fuel sources.
-What have we got here?
-You should really recognise this, Adam.
It looks like a grass pellet. Is it?
-No, it's rapeseed, crushed rapeseed.
-Oh, I should have known that.
Yeah, my neighbour crushes our rapeseed and produces oil
and, yeah, gets these slugs of what's left over.
But we actually use it in animal feed.
Yeah, that's one of its many uses.
We use it as fuel
-and we're finding it's twice as powerful as a wood pellet.
-Because of the oil?
-The oil content of it, yeah.
Incredible stuff, isn't it?
So, you can pellet pretty much anything to put into the boiler.
You can. Most food waste, you could actually pelletise.
Here's another one here.
-What's this, then?
-Have a smell.
-No, I can't...
-This is it before it's been pelletised.
It looks like peat.
-I can't smell it at all.
-We're trying to divert anything going to landfill.
So, it's waste to energy.
Why let it rot in landfill
and produce the same amount of CO2 as when it's burned?
So, really, you're making a business
and something that's quite ethical at the same time.
And supplying people with energy.
-You just tip that in the top and get out pellets?
Oh, I've got to see this.
I never thought coffee would help with your central heating system.
It's great to see green technology like this
that can help farmers get their energy bills under control.
On a much larger scale,
farms are also providing fuels that can benefit us all.
This was the first and still is
one of the largest straw-fuelled power stations in the UK.
It's located in the fens of Cambridgeshire
and supplies electricity
to thousands of businesses and homes in the local area.
It's farm-supplied power generation on a massive scale.
Justin Long's job is to make sure
the power station is supplied with straw all year round.
Livestock farmers use straw
for bedding down their animals and feeding them.
But a lot of people wouldn't have thought of using it to produce energy.
How did that idea come about?
Well, as you and I both know,
many farmers used to burn the straw in the arable field itself
following the harvest.
That got rid of a lot of the surplus.
Once that was banned for environmental reasons,
there was a surplus of straw available
within this primarily cereal-growing region in the east here.
This was capitalised upon by building this power station.
How are you sourcing all this straw? You must have quite a difficult job.
We can do.
The weather can obviously have quite an effect.
We have an 11, 12-week window at harvest time
when we have to procure all of the station's requirement
for the following year.
And obviously, the wet weather we had this harvest,
yeah, did make things quite tricky.
Once the straw's collected, it's a simple trip from field to furnace.
But in a power station of this size,
generating electricity from burning the bales
is a very hi-tech process.
Bernel Alberga oversees the whole operation.
What's it like as a product to produce energy?
My previous experience was at a gas station.
Gas, very linear, doesn't change.
Straw has its own challenges.
It varies from bale to bale, the density varies, the moisture varies.
Causes a few problems.
I understand in your company you're burning other products off farm.
Yes, we have a power station that burns poultry litter,
another one that burns horse waste bedding, and also forestry woodchip.
-So, really, can you burn anything that farmers can produce?
There are other things that you have to take into consideration
when you do burn it, such as emissions.
But, yes, if you can burn it, you can make energy from it.
So, how green is this energy, then?
It's very green. We're essentially a carbon neutral business,
so the fuel that we burn, any emissions that we produce
are readily absorbed by next year's harvest.
So, it's very green.
Energy sources likes straw are increasingly being used
to supply electricity to the National Grid.
And on a smaller scale, energy crops like willow and eucalyptus
are being grown to supply heat and hot water to individual properties.
So, in the future,
farmers will not only be providing a lot of food for your tables,
but also energy for your homes.
I'm continuing my journey along the NC500,
the new scenic route
that loops around Scotland's remote and beautiful North Highlands.
I've been travelling the eastern stretch through Sutherland,
and now I've come to one of the jewels of the route.
The Black Isle.
The Black Isle boasts a diverse landscape
of ancient woodland and verdant rolling hills
and is famed for its unusually temperate climate.
It's the climate as well as this lovely, dark, rich soil
that make this farmland some of the most fertile in Scotland.
Every year, the Black Isle produces almost 40,000 tonnes
of exceptional arable crops.
In summer, the fields are a patchwork of the land's bounty.
Clearly, it's a bit late in the year to witness that spectacle,
but I still want to understand what makes the Black Isle
such a land of plenty.
'John McCallum's family have been farming on the Black Isle
'for 12 generations, more than 400 years.'
So, John, tell me, why is the Black Isle so good for farming?
Well, it's sort of got its own little microclimate, really.
The rainfall comes and deposits on the hills,
about 23, 24 inches a year, which is very low.
-It's about as low as you'll get in the UK, to be honest.
And yet, just 70 miles to the west, it's about the highest.
You get a much warmer and drier climate for growing cereals.
And what about the soil?
We've got two or three feet of black soil here.
That's fantastic for growing cereals.
You know, it doesn't dry out in the hot periods
and it's actually very dry, even after this heavy rain last night.
-We're walking quite freely on it.
It's not sticking to your boots like what a lot of heavier ground would.
There are small deposits of clay,
but most of it's a sandy medium loam,
and it's good stuff for this job.
-What have you got in the ground at the moment?
-This is wheat,
sown a month ago for harvesting the end of September next year.
And give me a clue... I've heard several explanations.
What's the reason behind it being called the Black Isle?
There are two or three stories.
One is because when you're ploughing,
it's a lovely, black soil coming up.
And there's other stories about,
because it's surrounded as a peninsula
and the snow lands on the hills
and this can be completely free from snow,
so it looks darker all the time.
Although you don't get much rain here, there's a bit coming in now.
I think we're going to get a shower here any minute, so...
Let's head for shelter, shall we?
Wheat is only a small part of what John grows.
Today, his son Mark is preparing the fields for their main crop.
It's the one that's most highly prized in these parts.
Malting spring barley,
essential ingredient of Scotland's national tipple - whisky.
Why is barley from the Black Isle so good for malting
and so good for, ultimately, making whisky?
Our soil here produces low nitrogen barley,
which is required for malting,
which then in turn produces good malt,
which in turn produces good whisky.
We grow some of the best malting barley in Scotland
and even, possibly, it could be argued, in the UK for distilling.
How much whisky could you make from a field like this?
This field's just over 20 acres, eight hectares.
-It can produce approximately 7,000 bottles of whisky.
-Is that right?
Yeah. Yeah, I wouldn't like to drink them all.
By next summer, these fields will be rich with barley.
And later, I'll be heading inland
to discover how this precious grain ends up in your glass.
In a moment, we'll have the week's weather.
But before that, a big thank you
to all of you who bought the 2016 Countryfile calendar.
And if you haven't got one yet,
here's how you can get your hands on one.
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including delivery in the UK.
You can buy yours either via our website:
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will be donated to the BBC Children in Need appeal.
You know what I'm going to say.
Christmas isn't far away. This could be the perfect stocking filler.
Although you'd need quite a wide stocking.
Anyway, here's the weather for the week ahead.
I've been heading south
along the stunning eastern stretch of the North Coast 500,
Scotland's newest tourist route.
My journey has brought me here,
to the fertile farmlands of the Black Isle.
The farmers grow all sorts here, but the most prized crop is barley,
essential for making Scotland's most famous export - whisky.
So, I've come here to the Glen Ord Distillery
to find out how the humble grain of barley
is transformed into uisge beatha, the water of life.
Founded in 1838,
Glen Ord is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland
and the very last on the Black Isle.
It's also one of the few distilleries
that still does its own malting,
the first, crucial stage of turning barley into whisky.
Alistair MacKenzie is the malting manager.
So, Alistair, what is malting? Why do you do it?
Malting is, essentially,
breaking down the protein within the barleycorn
so we can give the distillery access to the starch
that's in the barley crop.
So, how do you do that? What's the process?
What we try and do is, we replicate what happens in the field
by adding some moisture to the grain, which is what we're doing here.
We'll bring up the moisture and allow the corn to germinate
so that when we take it to the distillery, we can grind it
and add hot water to it and take the alcohol from the grain.
Probably the best thing to do is to actually take a sample of it
-and I'll show you what I mean.
This is lovely and moist. You can see it's sort of shiny.
If you look at the end of the barleycorn there,
you can see the chit beginning to come out of the grain.
That little white end, yeah, OK.
That's what we're looking to do at this stage up here,
is for that to happen, so it's now...
The first part of germination has begun
and we can then send it to the second stage
where we can bring it on further, under controlled process.
Once malted, the barley is ready for the next stage.
Distillery manager Kirsty Dagnan is walking me through the process.
What next? What happens?
So, from the malted barley, it's ground up, it's mashed.
We add water to it and that's to turn the starch into sugar.
'Yeast is then added in these tubs, called washbacks,
'which starts the process of turning it into alcohol.'
It's kind of brown and soupy.
What percentage would this be at this point?
This is roughly about 8%.
Still quite a long way from whisky at this point.
It is at this point, yeah.
So, the stillhouse.
When I think of a distillery, this is what's in my mind.
When you're running a business on this modern, huge scale,
how linked is it still with its past?
Craft and the heritage are very much at the heart of what we do.
You've seen wooden washbacks
that are still made by a family-run company that's very local.
You see the big copper stills behind you,
and they are still made by coppersmiths
that have gone through probably an eight-year apprenticeship.
This is a modern process now, so you must be changing some things.
We're trying to make ourselves
as environmentally friendly as possible,
so here we re-use our hot water in the malting process.
So, we're using less heavy fuel oil and we get less gas,
and making us as energy efficient as possible.
You get a lot of your barley from the Black Isle.
Is it important to get local produce
or is it all down to price when you're doing it on a big scale?
Not at all. For us, it's actually down to the quality.
So, we need good quality barley, good quality water, and yeast.
That's the only three things that we can use for making whisky,
so we're very, very fortunate
that we have all of these great resources round about us.
There's one tradition that may have fallen by the wayside,
which is the workers having a few drams.
Yes, it was a tradition that the workers got a dram in the morning,
a dram at lunchtime and a dram if they did a dirty job.
-I wonder how they managed to operate under that amount of drink.
I think it's probably a much safer place to work now
than it used to be.
So, Kirsty, this is the quiet end of the process
-where the whisky just sits and sits for years and years, right?
It has to sit for at least three years to be called Scotch whisky.
-That's part of the definition?
-Yeah, it is.
How many casks have you got here?
We've got about 12,000 casks here,
and that is actually a small warehouse.
We use either European oak or American oak,
so it's sherry or bourbon casks that we use for Glen Ord.
-Different flavours from each?
Get more sherry flavours from the sherry casks
and then bourbon sweet flavours from the bourbon casks.
The Glen Ord is a blend of the two different cask types.
It sounds lovely.
-And we've got on very well today, haven't we?
-We have, yes.
-You know what I'm going to ask you next.
-Would you like a wee dram?
Oh, well, if you insist! I wouldn't force you.
-But if we could just try a little, that would be lovely.
-How's my timing?
-That's very good.
I'm definitely going to need a hand here. Ready?
-Yeah, go for it.
-OK, so it's there.
-Oh, look at the colour of that!
-Isn't that fantastic?
-What a beaut.
-Let's try a little bit of this.
-Fancy a bit?
-Hit me up.
-OK. Here we go. Down the hatch. So...
-Ah, slainte mhath!
-That is beautiful, isn't it?
-Amazing, yeah. Warming.
If you did the NC500 at this time of year,
you'd need that at the end of it.
I think I deserve it after my small stretch.
Whew! Well, that's all we've got time for this week.
Next week, I'm going to be in the Peak District
in the search of one of our fastest animals.
-We'll see you, then.
Hey, we could make a night of this.
-We've got a whole barrel to get through there.
-Bring in the whisky.
Ellie Harrison and Joe Crowley are exploring the NC500 - a new 500-mile scenic loop that takes in some of Scotland's remotest and most beautiful places. Ellie is in the west near Applecross, where she comes face to face with the fearsome Belach na Ba - the 'Pass of the Cattle'. At more than 2,000 feet, it's Britain's highest road. Lucky for her, she gets to ride pillion on a motorbike to the top of the pass, where she meets Mark Beaumont, who has cycled the full 500-mile route non-stop in 37 hours. Ellie then snakes up the coast to Ullapool to find out how one small native fish could be the answer to the salmon-farming industry's prayers.
Joe Crowley is in the east, riding the NC500 through Sutherland's fertile planes. He stops off to meet the young couple who have jacked it all in to live the crofting life and discovers they are just two of an increasing number of young people going back to the land. He then drives on to the Black Isle - so called because of its rich black fertile soils. Here, he meets the farmers growing premium barley destined for the whiskey industry.
Tom's investigating the high number of traffic accidents that happen on our rural roads, whilst Adam discovers that the future of UK energy production may be straw-powered!