What Does The Project Aim To Do?
Overall project purpose: Secure and improve the conservation status of 70% of the world's machair habitat and its associated species by implementing and demonstrating sustainable management methods that optimise the conservation interest and are compatible with local crofting practices.

The project will target machair habitat on three SACs and will secure the conservation of associated bird species in 10 machair SPAs - this covers a total area of 23,766 ha. The project will bring 3,200 ha of machair habitat into favourable condition and improve the conservation status of the Annex 1 species corncrake and chough, and the regularly occurring migratory species dunlin and ringed plover.

For more detail, about what the project aims to achieve, see the Project Objectives.

What is Machair?
Machair is rare, bio-diverse coastal grassland, unique to the north-western fringe of Europe. It is listed on Annex 1 of the EU "Habitats Directive", and occurs over a total global area of just 19,000 ha, with 70% of this in western Scotland, mostly on the offshore islands, and the remainder in western Ireland.

Machair is generated by an exceptional blend of physical factors, including climate, substrate and topography, combined with longstanding human influences. It forms when sand with very high shell content blows landwards by prevailing westerly winds, creating a fertile, low-lying plain. For generations, man has worked and moulded machair in a low intensity crofting system that has created a mosaic of open habitats. Working the machair is a huge part of Gaelic culture, supporting communities and wildlife like no other habitat.

Grazing regimes and rotational cropping - involving unique low intensity cultivation techniques and crop varieties, support globally significant conservation interests and the machair sites comprise a key element of Scotland’s Natura network. As such, machair has traditionally maintained a high density and diversity of wild arable weeds (wildflowers), which in turn supports a wide range of birds and invertebrates.

However, gradual changes in local agricultural practices have occurred that jeopardise the condition of machair habitat, and the conservation status of key bird populations. These changes are driven by both financial and social factors, influenced by local, national and international pressures. However, in previous years, agri-environment support and bespoke management schemes on machair Natura sites have been beneficial in encouraging positive management for wildlife.

The project plans to implement and demonstrate sustainable management methods that both supports the conservation of machair and associated species, whilst being compatible with local crofting practices. This includes measures such as increasing the area of late harvested crops and reducing the area of under-sown arable crops; promoting techniques such as stooking, crop rotation, application of seaweed fertilizer; enhancing geese management schemes to protect fragile crops; and securing a supply of local arable seed.

What Species Are Threatened?
There are several iconic species at severe risk due to the increasing loss, or poor condition of machair habitat. Some of these are listed below.

CorncrakeA classic summer sound of the Hebrides, Corncrakes migrate north each spring from their African wintering quarters to the summer machair crofts. It has become synonymous with the Hebrides while the prolonged rasping call has become familiar to locals and visitors in the west of Scotland. Corncrake is a migratory bird species, currently listed on Annex I of the EU Birds Directive. The current corncrake population in the UK is 1,278 calling (territorial) males. Up to half of this total is found within the project area, with most of the remainder found in suitable habitats immediately adjacent to the project area on the islands off the west coast of Scotland. The species is red-listed in the UK inventory of Birds of Conservation Concern due to a historical decline in both the range and number of breeding birds, principally due to habitat loss caused by intensive agriculture.

Corn BuntingKnown locally as "fat bird of the barley", Corn bunting is a lowland farmland bird and is the largest of our buntings. It is most usually seen perched on a wire or post and is often located first by its distinctive song, reminiscent of a set of jangling keys. It is a stout, dumpy, brown bird which flies off with a fluttering flight and with its legs characteristically 'dangling'. In the summer corn buntings prefer open farmland and in winter they may be found in stubbles, root crops, weedy fields and cattle or stockyards. Its dramatic population decline in the UK means the species is red-listed in the UK inventory of Birds of Conservation Concern.

Ringed PloverRinged plover is a migratory bird species using the sandy soils to lay its eggs and raise broods along the western coasts. The project area supports large numbers of ringed plover in both summer and winter. However, the project will primarily target breeding ringed plover.

In 1984, the UK breeding population was estimated at 8,600 pairs, with 25% of these nesting on the Western Isles in some of the highest densities anywhere. However, there have been known declines on these islands in recent years. The project area currently supports an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs.

DunlinDunlin nest on the machair and can be found feeding in the wetter areas or along the shores. Dunlin is a migratory bird species listed on Annex I of the Birds Directive. The project area supports large numbers of dunlin in both summer and winter. However, the project will target the conservation of breeding dunlin. The UK supports an estimated breeding population of 9,150 breeding pairs. The project area supports up to (an estimated) 1,300 breeding pairs – about 14% of the UK population, in some of the highest densities in Europe.

ChoughThis member of the crow family has a special niche in the Hebrides. Confined to a relict population centred around the Argyll islands this black bird with a decurved crimson bill and red legs feeds in cattle grazed machair areas. Chough is listed on Annex I of the Birds Directive. The most recent estimate of the UK chough population is 498 pairs (2002). The project area supports around 35 breeding pairs and a significant but variable wintering population. The UK chough population has increased in recent years, but the Scottish population (over 50% of which occurs in the project site) has fluctuated and remains vulnerable. Choughs are amber-listed in the UK’s inventory of Birds of Conservation Concern.

The Great Yellow Bumblebee, once widespread throughout the UK is now a UK BAP priority species and is classed as nationally scarce. It is confined to just a few areas where traditional crofting agriculture takes place, such as the Hebridean machair or crofting areas of Orkney, Coll and Tiree. As for all species of bee, a key requirement for the great yellow bumblebee is an abundant food supply during the breeding season. However, intensification of grazing, in particular summer grazing, appears to be damaging for the great yellow bumblebee. A return to rotational strip cropping with machair grazed by cattle only in the winter would be highly beneficial. In general spring and summer grazing has a negative effect on bees because the plant life protecting the nests is eaten back and flowering is prevented. Autumn and winter grazing can be positive because it allows the pasture to grow wild in the spring time as the bees nest. Rotational grazing is ideal because ungrazed areas grow to encourage the build-up of small mammal populations which provide burrows for nesting in future years.

Rare plant species associated with machair which will also benefit from the project: -
A local biodiversity action plan is in place for the delicate orchid species on the Western Isles, including:
  • White pyramidal orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis
  • Early marsh orchid Dactylorhiza incarnate
Local Biodiversity action plans (LBAPS) have been drawn up by the two councils who fall within the project area. Details of all the plans can be found via the following links:
What Is Happening to Machair?
See the list of Threats.