The machair of the Western Isles is an area that Nick and Richard have long wanted to visit for some time. Machiar is unique to the exposed western coastline of Scotland and Ireland, teaming with wildflowers in summertime, and abundant with wildlife throughout the year. This summer they had the opportunity to visit the western shores of North and South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.
Machair is a Gaelic word meaning fertile low lying grassy plain. The topography of this area of Uist transitions from sand dunes on the coast, to grasslands, then onto small fields of traditionally cultivated arable land. This is an area of traditional crofting, where crofters live and work on the land, often supplementing their income with additional employment. Therefore, the land is not overworked. On these small scale croft farms, cattle graze the land unselectively, improving the quality of the grassland. Harmful sprays are not used by crofters in areas of machair, allowing desirable insects to thrive, which has a beneficial impact on the complex and harmonious balance of life here.
The patchwork of fields are worked in rotation, being left to lay fallow for a couple of years, and then lightly ploughed. Recently cultivated fields burst into flower with an abundance of different species, creating a mosaic of fertile Scottish grassland habitats, renowned for their Hebridean wildflowers. Even the smallest area of machair bursts with a multitude of different flowering species, creating riot of colour and texture, in a complex matrix of plant species and life forms.
The shallow Atlantic sea surrounding Uist encourages the collection of sea shells, which break down over time into small particles like sand. During storms and gales along the exposed coastline, the calcium rich shell particles are blown ashore, and then inland by winds, where they mix with the soil, creating a unique lime rich blend. The alkaline sand neutralises the acid rich peaty soil, to create a fertile environment, that normally has a pH of over 7.0, in which the wildflowers can thrive. Seaweed is often used as a fertiliser by crofters, further enriching the land, while the area receives the perfect amount of rainfall for life to thrive.
It’s not only the site of the machair that is stunning in this part of the world, the coastline is beautiful in its own right. On a calm summers day on the Uist coast the water is shallow and crystal clear and picturesque enough to see that alone.
Machair varies from area to area, depending on the local environment and its agricultural history, giving each area its own individual mix of wildflowers. In May the machair starts to burst into flower and its at its most spectacular from late June to mid August. Colours change through the seasons, from yellows in spring, through to reds, whites and blues as the season progresses. Orchids specific to the Western Isles, occur here naturally, along with rare insects, such as the Great Yellow Bumble Bee. These habitats are excellent resources for rare wildlife, such as threatened birds like the Corncrake, Chough, Corn Bunting, Lapwings and Hen Harriers.
The RSPB estimate that the machair is home to approximately 16,000 breeding pairs of wading birds and RSPB Scotland is leading a collaborative project to develop a better understanding of machair to help conserve these unique and special places.
The level of management required to sustain machair is only achievable on this small scale using traditional methods. It was the increase of mechanised management, thus larger field sizes and routine spraying since WWII, that has destroyed all but 1% of mainland Britain’s wildflower meadows. Thus, the importance of Machair as a last stronghold for rare species cannot be emphasised enough.
Machair is unique to its location and therefore cannot be recreated elsewhere, but we can certainly encourage a more richly diverse environment, not just through farming methods, but through the choices we make in our own gardens. We feel that it’s important to strive to create more diverse and balanced natural environments in which we can all thrive, benefiting wildlife and humans alike! Nick and Richard’s visit to Uist has provided all of us at Taylor Tripp with huge inspiration and renewed enthusiasm for encouraging wildlife into our own gardens and those of our clients, managing landscapes in a more sustainable and naturally beautiful way.
Nick and Richard really enjoyed their visit to Uist and seeing the machair in all its glory, meeting some lovely local characters and spending time in such an exquisite landscape and would highly recommend visiting during wildflower season.