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Scotland's bog myrtle to fuel second oil boom

By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent
Monday, 12 February 2007

For centuries Highlanders have viewed the tiny white flowers and blue-green leaves of the myrica gale plant with appreciation.

Men used it to flavour their beer, women picked the fragrant broad-toothed leaves and scattered them in their beds to keep away midges, fleas and other biting insects. The plant, also known as sweet gale in England and bog myrtle in Scotland, thrives in higher altitudes on moors, in bogs, alongside rivers and on the edge of lochs.

It is very rare in its ability to drive away blood-sucking pests. The Vikings used infusions of sweet gale to treat depression, poor memory and promote well-being. It is also believed that warriors consumed it on the eve of war to make them more aggressive.

Now scientists have discovered it is extremely useful in fighting acne and helping to delay ageing. In fact, Scotland could be on the verge of a new oil boom - this time in the shape of the first essential oil to be developed in the UK for commercial use for more than 40 years.

Boots plans to develop sweet gale in plantations across the country, turning what was once a cottage industry harvesting wild plants into a multimillion- pound business.

For the past five years, experts from the high street chemist's have been working with Highland Natural Products, in Inverness-shire to develop products for women derived from sweet gale. Botanics Sensitive Skin is to be launched this month after clinical tests proved it is four times more effective than tea tree oil, Australia's second biggest horticultural industry, at killing acne bacteria.

Sweet gale cultivation is small scale, with fewer than 50 hectares of plantations dedicated to the plant in Argyll and the Spey Valley. But there are plans to increase production to 5,000 hectares in the Borders, Moray and Aberdeenshire by 2013.

According to the Scottish Executive, the plant could generate £5m for rural areas and create 500 jobs. Growing sweet gale is worth several hundred pounds per hectare, compared with the £17 per hectare earned by sheep farming.

"This project highlights how our natural resources can be harnessed in a sustainable way to present an economic opportunity not only for Scotland but also globally," said Jane Wood, of Boots. The company used just 15kg of sweet gale oil at the launch of its new product range, but by 2016 the company envisages it will use more than 10 tons of the oil, which it calls a "wonder treatment for people with sensitive skin", every year.

"Long before the Romans brought hops to Britain, sweet gale was used to flavour beer," said Julia Haywood, a biochemist involved in developing the new range of skin treatments. "During five years of research ... we discovered that sweet gale has some really interesting properties.

"When you go out in the sun your skin can generate free radicals which can cause cancer, but certain properties of sweet gale can help protect against them," she said.

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