Unique machair habitat set for £2m boost


A massive funding boost of over £2 million looks set to be delivered to conserve the unique Hebridean machair, home to traditional crofting and a wealth of rare wildlife. Over £1 million has been secured over four years from the EU Life+ fund for protecting vulnerable habitats after a successful application led by RSPB Scotland, with plans in place to match this funding with contributions from a partnership of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the RSPB. Once this funding is in place, the £2 million project should be underway in January.

Great Yellow Bumblebee, Baleshare, Outer Hebrides (Grab: BirdGuides)

The Hebridean machair is a strip of coastal land stretching from North Uist to Islay, with small pockets extending to the north of Lewis. Traditional crofting methods, including mixed grazing and late harvesting of arable crops for winter cattle fodder, produces a magical landscape rich in wild flowers, herbs and grasses, bursting with seasonal colours. This in turn makes perfect conditions for threatened birds like Corncrake, Chough and Corn Bunting. The machair is also home to 16,000 breeding pairs of wading birds such as Lapwings and Ringed Plovers, and insects such as the declining Great Yellow Bumblebee. Scottish machair is globally important for this wildlife, which has disappeared from many other parts of Europe. Without the right support, however, the active crofting systems that maintain it are at risk.

The importance of key machair areas is recognised through extensive designations under European wildlife law, which allowed access to the EU LIFE+ funding scheme. RSPB Scotland led the bid, in consultation with farmers and crofters on the islands and in partnership with the CnES, SNH and other agencies.

Corncrake, Balranald RSPB, N.Uist, Outer Hebrides (Photo: Steve Duffield)

The project will work with crofters and farmers to support viable wildlife-friendly agricultural techniques. In particular, the funds will be used to provide machinery, labour and advice to crofters, to address issues like grazing by geese and changing ploughing methods, and promote beneficial techniques like late harvesting, arable 'stooking' (stacking) and the use of seaweed fertiliser. The grant will complement and extend government funding available for machair management through the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), and the results will feed into the next version of the SRDP in 2014. The hope is that the funding will allow the development of a better understanding of how to conserve this way of life and a special habitat for future generations.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, said: "We're delighted to have been able to secure this significant investment for the machair habitat and its incredible wildlife. The funding will make a real difference to fragile island economies, with 3 new jobs created on the Western Isles, and direct support for the traditional crofting skills which are vital to preserving this unique wildlife, landscape and culture. We also expect positive spin-offs in the form of tourism to the islands, as more visitors are inspired to see what makes this area so special."

Stewart Angus, Scottish Natural Heritage's adviser on coastal habitats, who has a special interest in machair, commented: "This is very welcome news. We congratulate the RSPB on their successful bid. Machair crofters have a history of working their land in a way that benefits wildlife. The sort of support that comes with this package will help ensure that this form of sympathetic land use has a future — assisting crofting communities to use their skills to maintain the stunning levels of biodiversity that can be associated with traditionally cropped machair. We look forward to working with the RSPB, crofters, and other partners on this exciting project."

Stooks on Uist (Photo: Donald Iain Campbell)

Councillor Archie Campbell, Chairman of the Comhairle's Sustainable Development Committee, said: "The EU LIFE+ Committee decision is to be welcomed. This has come on the back of a long period of discussion within the Comhairle and with RSPB regarding the project. The project has the potential to bring benefits to the machair but it is paramount that crofters are content with the proposals. RSPB have agreed to hold local consultation meetings with the crofting community at an early stage. This matter is now on the agenda for next week's Sustainable Development Committee."

Ena MacDonald, Uist crofter and Scottish Crofting Foundation representative, added: "It breaks my heart to go down the machair and see no stooks of corn like there used to be, and people buying in fertiliser rather than using seaweed as before. I welcome this new funding and look forward to it addressing the issues facing crofters and helping the systems adapt to the benefit of all."

Written by: RSPB