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Machair is more than a habitat; more than just plants, birds, and sandy soil: it is a blend of low-lying coastline, sand partly consisting of shell fragments, the effects of strong winds combined with just the right amount of rainfall and, most crucially, the involvement of people and their grazing animals. So unusual is the right combination of these features that machair is restricted world-wide to just the north-west of Scotland and the north-west of Ireland. Though machair is found in Orkney, Shetland, Lewis and Harris, many of the Inner Hebrides, and on a few mainland sites, there is no doubt that it is best developed in the Uists, Tiree, and on Barra.

Growing crops ... and wild flowers

South Uist is perhaps the finest of all, where the entire western coastline is a wonderful mosaic of beach, dune, machair, marsh and lochs, rendered all the more spectacular by the patchwork of crops (mainly a mix of rye and black oat) and their associated fallows. The wild flowers of these crops and fallows can be visually stunning, and the colours seem to vary from crop to crop, perhaps reflecting subtle differences in land management or even planting date. The wild flowers are best seen in July and early August - the crop is harvested in mid-August. It has been suggested that the best flowers are found in crops that were fertilised with seaweed rather than artificial fertiliser, and that plough depth could also be influential, but there is also a great deal of variation from year to year, and there is no doubt that the weather plays an important role.

Varied wildlife

Though there are some scarce species, the real conservation value of machair is the way that a fairly high rural human population manages the land in a way that also delivers high biodiversity - because the variety of plants encourages a variety of invertebrates, which in turn attracts birds to feed and breed. Here, the cry of the corncrake is still common, but the corn bunting takes a bit more effort to track down. This is also the favoured habitat of the great yellow bumblebee Bombus distinguendus.

Climate change studies

Machair is a very low-lying habitat, with high winter water levels. This is one of the most vulnerable of Scottish habitats to climate change, and Scottish Natural Heritage is involved in a number of studies investigating the impacts of sea level rise and storms on machair.

Last updated on Wednesday 25th November 2015 at 15:08 PM. Click here to comment on this page