Guest post by Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species in Scotland

Lapwing with chick in machair, South Uist. copyright Chris Gomersall (RSPB images)

In November 2008, we in the Species and Habitats team at RSPB Scotland were living in a febrile world created by the simultaneous appearance of a looming deadline, and a mountain to climb.

We were racing to pull together the funding package for a major four-year conservation project focused on the machair of the Western Isles. In the midst of the frenzy, one potential funder suddenly asked: can you sum up in one sentence why the Uist machair is important for birds? Having been focused on the detail and building the conservation case, drafting applications and plans, this came from left-field. One sentence? I saw our Head of Conservation Science, Jerry Wilson, walk past my desk. Jerry knows the machair and its birds intimately. “Jerry, in one sentence, why is the machair so important for birds?”. Without breaking his stride, he replied “A strip of land, 35 miles long, half a mile wide, with 15,000 pairs of waders.”

It’s valid, broadly speaking. And it’s startling – an excellent sound-bite. It could, indeed, only really be describing the machair. Yet, as Jerry well knows, this extraordinary habitat is much more than this alone.

Machair only occurs on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. It forms where beaches of pale shell-sand (sand made from the shells of marine animals, eroded over millennia) lie on coasts facing out to the Atlantic. Prevailing westerly winds driving in off the ocean carry this fine alkaline sand over the dunes to settle over the acidic peat-soil of the plain inland. To the east of this machair plain, lies the ‘black country’, and then the hill ground. This higher land drains the incoming clouds causing streams to form and punctuate the machair with wet patches and lochs.

On a warm day in June, machair grassland is a honey-scented riot of orchids, ox-eye daisies, red clover and their attendant bees; terns, lapwings, skylarks; lady’s bedstraw and ragged robin. A quiet riot - wide shifting skies and broad horizons, constant activity and yet a palpable sense of peacefulness. I swear, the very air is softer. It is the most beguiling of landscapes.

Many of the wild species here have undergone huge national declines elsewhere over recent generations, and are increasingly rare across this country and, indeed, the whole of Western Europe: important plant communities - especially the arable ‘weeds’; birds - like the corn bunting, corncrake and of course those waders; and insects - like the great yellow bumblebee.

But this jewel – and here that word is no exaggeration – should never be seen as just ‘natural history’. It is, in fact, the product of an intimate and ancient interaction between nature and people. On one machair site in North Uist, archaeologists have found evidence of continuous human occupation from Neolithic times – 5,000 years ago - to the present. The machair has profound cultural significance on the Scottish islands. Compared to the hill ground, where over the generations many people have had to scratch a living on rough terrain and thin soils, the machair plains are good, fertile and forgiving land. And we are all very fortunate that, over generations, crofting communities have farmed this ground with respect for its natural features. Indeed, those Uist arable wildflowers, the corn buntings and the corncrakes simply would not be here if it were not for crofting agriculture. The extensive, low-input cattle system needs arable crops to feed the animals over winter. At least 35 completely unique varieties of small-oats, rye and barley have been bred and developed over centuries on the Uist islands alone, tailored to local conditions. The arable land is maintained in 3-5 year rotation across the plain, the fallow sites being breeding grounds for the waders. Seaweed from the beaches is used as fertiliser for the crops. Agriculture this attuned to the natural environment is now a real rarity in Europe - and that is why farmland wildlife has declined so rapidly since the Second World War.

Our Machair Life project won its funding - from the European Commission LIFE+ scheme, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Corlach nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council). The project drew to a close this month having worked closely with the machair crofters to support crop management that benefits wildlife: shallow ploughing, the use of seaweed and of the local crop varieties. It has thus helped to significantly expand the total area of traditionally harvested arable crops - wildflowers, fallow fields and all. It has been a privilege to help support this precious system.

Now, this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s foremost climate authority, issued its latest report. In it, they conclude that rising sea-levels, and increased frequency and violence of storms, will significantly impact machair habitats.   Erosion has for some time been seen as a threat to these areas. Ecologists from the James Hutton Institute have already measured an increasing predominance, over the past 40 years, of salt tolerant plants in machair grasslands, indicating a biological response to increased storminess and salt spray.

But this new warning brings the issue into sharp focus. It is of course just one of the myriad impacts that our changing climate will have on nature and humanity. Yet for those who know these machair areas – and more so for those who live there and work the land - the message is alarming. We need to marshal our collective creativity to find ways to adapt, protect and support the machair and its farming systems in response to this growing problem. And we must do so in the manner that generations of islanders have demonstrated so clearly: the way that is in tune with nature.

Most importantly of all, we need the leaders of the world to collectively respond with vision and courage to the wider issue of greenhouse gas emissions. And we need that change to happen very soon.