Machair habitat - Fiona Dix
What is it?
The Gaelic word ‘machair’ means an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. Found along the coast of north and west Scotland and western Ireland, machair is a type of grassland associated with calcareous sand (mainly made of shell) which has been blown inland from beaches and mobile dunes.
Strictly speaking, ‘machair’ refers to a flat sandy plain with dry and wet short-turf grasslands above impermeable rock. However, this term can also cover the beach, foredunes, dune slacks, fens, swamps, lochs and saltmarshes which together form a 'machair system'.
For many thousands of years, machair has had a close relationship with local communities who manage the land. In recent times, this has involved a mix of seasonal grazing (mainly by cattle) and low-input cropping of potatoes, oats and rye. This traditional management sustains superb displays of summer flowers across wide expanses.
Where is it found?
Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe, found only in the north and west of Scotland and Ireland. It is estimated that there are 25,000 hectares of machair worldwide, with 17,500 hectares in Scotland and the remainder in western Ireland. Almost half of the Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides, with the best and most extensive areas in the Uists, Barra and Tiree.
Why is it important?
Machair is the product of a unique blend of geography and the involvement of people and their grazing animals. It is so unusual that it is restricted to just a few areas in the British Isles.
Machair systems show a great complexity and diversity of habitats and plant communities. A few rare plants are restricted to machair systems including slender naiad (found with machair lochs) and the endemic marsh orchid known by its Latin name Dactylorhiza majalis scotica.
Notable insects of machair include the belted beauty moth, great yellow bumblebee and the northern colletes bee. Because of the variety of plants here, invertebrates abound, which, in turn, attract feeding and breeding birds. Two nationally scarce birds, the corncrake (which is globally threatened) and corn bunting are present in machair systems, while breeding wader populations of the Uists, Tiree and Coll are some of the most important in Europe and even further abroad.
Machair is a living, cultural landscape and much of its conservation value is dependent on the maintenance of the traditional crofting agriculture.
Is it threatened?
Machair is such a finely balanced habitat that it is at enormous risk from changes in farming practices and land use, particularly under- and overgrazing, sand and shingle extraction, and recreation. Earlier cutting of grass for silage rather than hay reduces seeding by flowering plants and destroys the nests of characteristic birds such as the corncrake. And social changes in crofting communities can have a massive impact on the farming methods applied.
The predation of breeding birds by introduced species, such as the hedgehog on the Uists, is also a big problem.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
The Scottish Wildlife Trust manages several nature reserves containg machair habitat including Isle Ristol in the Summer Isles and the Isle of Eigg.
What can I do to help?
- Support the work of Scottish Wildlife Trust and become a member.