SCOTTISH water has defended its use of witchcraft to detect pipes underground.

The public-owned utilities company has admitted that some of its water operatives use rods and divination to establish the “presence of water and pipes”.

Known as water witching in the United States, but more commonly referred to as dowsing here, it’s the practice of holding twigs or metal rods that are supposed to move in response to hidden water.

Though an ancient method, it’s not backed up by science.

In a number of controlled tests, the moving or twitching of dowsing rods has been attributed to “ideomotor movements”, where subconscious mental activity makes anything held in the hands move.

It was first debunked in 1852 by the psychologist William B Carpenter, but the practice remains in common use today.

And it’s not only Scottish Water relying on magic.

Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, spoke to all 13 water companies in the UK to find out more about their methods. Only one said they didn’t dowse.

She started her informal study after a Severn Trent water technician called to her parents’ house property in the Midlands water company area and began slowly walking around holding two “bent tent pegs” to locate the mains pipe.

Le Page tweeted Severn Trent “to see if they knew that one of their technicians was using equipment that is known not to work” and the company replied: “We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones”.

Writing on her blog, the scientist said the dowsing shouldn’t just be laughed off as silly: “If they get it wrong, that could mean the difference between an entire town having safe drinking water or not.”

A Scottish Water spokesman told The National: “Some of our water operatives use this as one way of establishing the presence of water and pipes.

“However, it is a very small part of the range of equipment we use for this purpose and would never be the only method.”