The Machair at RSPB Balranald bird reserve, July 2016
In our view, the extremely rare and world renowned Machair is one of the wonders of the world and the west coast of North Uist is one of the best places in the world to see and experience it.
During the late spring and summer, the beach at RSPB Balranald is fringed by a carpet of Machair wildflowers. Words alone cannot do it justice. Even before you see the riot of all different colours, shapes and sizes of wildflowers, the scent of the sweet floral perfume in the air lets you know in advance that you are about to see something unique and very special.
Although the individual species of wildflowers themselves are well known, it is their sheer density and the interplay of so many different colours that is really delightful. To stroll along the grassy paths through the Machair wildflowers, beside the white sand beaches and the sea is enough to revive anyone!
In May, white flowers such as daisies and yellow flowers including birds foot trefoil and buttercups predominate. As the summer progresses, the colours change and more purple and red flowers appear including red clover, tufted vetch and red bartsia. Rare species of Orchid also appear in the Machair during summer.
The Machair exists here because the Atlantic Ocean is rich in shellfish and their shells are ground down and washed ashore during storms. The sand on the western beaches of the Island is therefore pure white due to it's very high shell content and also alkaline. The westerly prevailing wind blows the sand ashore and this provides an alkaline top dressing which neutralises the acidic peaty soil to create a fertile environment which is also free from pollutants.
Machair is only found in the Western Isles and the majority of it is confined to the Uist's. It's existence and it's future depend on a number of both environmental and human factors.
Traditional crofting practice is low input crop cultivation (such as rye, oats and barley for animal feed) with organic fertiliser, mainly seaweed. Also, traditionally the hay and straw is gathered into conical stacks which is then allowed to dry in the open air. Cropping is rotated and the ground is left fallow for at least 2 years. Cattle traditionally graze the Machair during winter, which improves the grassland by suppressing vigorous grasses and allowing the wildflowers to thrive.
Machair is a breeding ground for thousands of wading birds. Several iconic bird species that thrive in the Machair include Corncrake, Corn Bunting, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Chough. The Machair is also a source of nectar for the rare Great Yellow Bumblebee which also thrives here.
Despite now being recognised as being of unique conservation importance, Machair is under threat both from climate change and from changing agricultural practices. The value of traditional crofting practices has been recognised and are considered to be essential to the Machair's survival. Opportunities for education and training in traditional crofting techniques are now being championed and developed locally, which is brilliant. Long live the Machair!