Machair at Swainbost, Isle of Lewis. Via Urras Ranger
Machair is a Gaelic word that describes an extensive low-lying fertile plain. Almost half of all Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides and it is one of the rarest habitat types in Europe.
Machair is so important in ecological and conservational terms, that it has now become a recognised scientific term. Different authorities give the term different definitions: a type of sand dune pasture that is subject to local cultivation and has developed in wet and windy conditions; or the whole system, from the beach to where the sand encroaches onto peat further inland.
The machair land is home to rare carpet flowers, such as Irish Lady’s Tresses, Orchids, and Yellow Rattle. The Hebridean machair is also the last stronghold of the Corncrake. Twite, Dunlin, Redshank and Ringed Plover also thrive on the machair lands: there are over 17,000 pairs of waders breeding on the Uist and Barra machair alone – the most numerous being the Pewit or Lapwing.
Machair sand has high shell content, sometimes 80 or 90%, and is found only in the north west of Britain and Ireland. In the Hebrides, it is found mainly down the west coast and is most prominent in the Uists, Barra and South Harris.
William MacGillivray, the famous ornithologist, gave this poetic description that paints a picture of the machair formation (1830):
“..the fragments of the shells of molluscous. are rolled by the waves towards the shore, where they are further broken down..The wind then blows them beyond the watermark, where, in the presence of time, hillocks are formed. These hillocks are occasionally broken by the winds and blown inland, covering the fields and pastures…”
Marram grass solidifies these mobile sands and encourages soil growth further back in the dune system.
However, the threat of erosion is greater than ever with rising sea levels, increased levels of Atlantic storms and recreational beach use. Scottish Natural Heritage is working to ensure that a fair balance is kept between low intensity land use and recreation on our machair lands. Please help to protect machair systems if and when you visit by parking away from the dunes and avoiding their faces.
A pan of the coast at Habost on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.