‘The crops in North Uist and Benbecula, but especially South Uist, are exposed to a very singular misfortune; being sometimes entirely destroyed by the vast flocks of wild geese, which haunt these islands. This bird is never seen in the south of Scotland except in winter but in these islands it hatches and resides all the year round. . .’

Reverend Dr John Walker (1764)

Storm-cast, rotting seaweed shelters so many invertebrates that in autumn and winter the shores and beaches near the machair become important feeding grounds for waders. The oystercatchers and redshank breeding in the Uists move further south for the winter but are replaced by birds that have bred in Iceland. The local ringed plover remain in the Hebrides all winter – the only non-migratory population of this species in the world – while the smaller Arctic birds leap-frog across them to winter in Africa. Northern dunlin, on the other hand, are 20% larger than local dunlin, so birds from Greenland take over for the winter forcing the Hebridean ones to move further south. Turnstones from Greenland and Arctic Canada also overwinter in the Hebrides. Whimbrel, sanderling and purple sandpiper come from Iceland; bar-tailed godwit and grey plover from Siberia. Golden plover are abundant too, some of which breed locally. We do not know if local snipe stay for the winter but with so many taken by estate shooting parties their numbers must be topped up with migrants from further north.

Now that scythes have been replaced by modern machinery, crofters are encouraged – by ESA payments – to delay cutting their hay until August, and to cut from the centre of the field outwards, so that corncrakes can escape from the mower blades into neighbouring crops. The corn is cut in September or early October, having allowed the wild flowers to set seed. Where the fields are too small for binders or balers, the corn may still be tied in sheaves, then stooked before being taken back to the stack yard to be used as winter fodder; some will be threshed as seed for next season.

Later in October, barnacle and white-fronted geese arrive from Greenland, with whooper swans from Iceland. These wildfowl, along with the resident greylag geese, like to feed on the stubble. Recently, the barnacle geese tend to have forsaken some undisturbed offshore islands to frequent improved pasture. Their name derives from an ancient belief that they spent the summer as goose barnacles; stalked, marine crustaceans that look not dissimilar, although very much smaller, of course. Indeed, the Gaelic name for the geese and the barnacles is the same; ‘giodhran’.

Greylag geese

Greylag geese now breed in several parts of northern Scotland and the Inner Hebrides. There has always been a resident population of birds in the Uists which are reckoned to be the original pure, native stock.

Recent counts indicate about 100 greylags on Colonsay, some 700 on Coll with a similar number on Lewis and Harris, 2,000 on Tiree and about 4,000 on the Uists. Although wildfowlers are permitted to shoot them in winter, the goose numbers are increasing slightly each year. These flocks do not compare with the huge numbers wintering on the mainland and on Islay but, in a crofting context, the damage they might do can still be significant. In some parts of the Uists, for instance, geese can deprive sheep of the first flush of grass on some reseeded pastures in spring, or might flatten or graze ripening corn just prior to harvest in the autumn.

Since cultivation is so important to the conservation interests of machair, geese cannot be allowed to threaten its continuation. In the Uists, a Goose Management Committee has been formed, bringing together crofters, estates, the local council and agencies like the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department (SOAEFD) and Scottish Natural Heritage. Not only does this committee organise regular counts but it assesses complaints and organises goose scaring. Their role is to minimise pressure on crofting especially during harvest time while still retaining a viable breeding population of pure-bred Scottish greylags. A similar committee has now been formed in Tiree.

Keeping the balance

In summer the cows and milk sheep are sent to the glens, which are covered with heath and hard grasses, sedges and rushes, because the part consisting of soft grass is not in general sufficient for their maintenance during the whole year . . . Black cattle are small but well-shaped. They are covered with a thick and long pile to enable them to resist the winter’s cold – a good pile is considered one of the best qualifications of a cow

William Macgillivray’s diaries (1818)

Low-intensity land use as practised on the machair is as important for plants and animals as it is to the local people. This distinctive mix of culture, landscape and wildlife generates tourism; so good crofting and nature conservation are a highly viable combination and both are essential to the economy of the islands.

Cattle have long been an important part of the machair system. They do not graze as closely as sheep, taking not only the less appetizing species but also the less attractive portions; more stem, seed heads, dead vegetable material, rushes, cotton grass and other less tasty plants. Cattle, therefore, improve the quality of the grassland for other grazers as well as for wildlife.

In addition, cattle play a part in shaping the machair landscape. Tussocks, for example, are good habitats for invertebrates and thus provide both food and nest sites for birds. Waders have been known to use hoof prints as nest-cups, while some ringed plovers try to conceal their nest beside a dry cow pat.

The break-up of coarse plants (such as iris root systems) further opens up and improves the pasture, with any bare patches created being good for invertebrates and as seed beds for annual plants. Dung contains the seeds and grain necessary to regenerate the ground while also adding nutrients and humus.

Too much bare ground eroded (or poached) by stock can, however, encourage invasive weeds, such as ragwort. Sheep will eat this when it is young whereas cattle find it poisonous. While more environmentally-friendly than large numbers of sheep, cattle are quite labour-intensive. It may be the cheapest option to grow winter fodder on the machair, but cattle still need to be fed daily in the winter and even housed in bad weather. If not enough fodder is grown locally feed would have to be bought in, or the cattle even sent off to overwinter on the mainland. This loss of cropped land and of winter dung from the ground is detrimental to any good machair system. Artificial fertilisers reduce the variety of plants and tend to favour the more aggressive, but not necessarily the best, species in the grassland.

Too many sheep can break open the thin dry soils, or rub against sand banks, thus promoting erosion. An unfortunate trend in recent years has been to fence off individual apportionments of machair to confine stock all the year round. This leads to heavy grazing in summer preventing plants from flowering or setting seed and leading to less variety of species. It also removes cover for nesting and feeding birds and increases the risk of nests being trampled.

Agricultural support should be geared to helping crofters continue their already environmentally-friendly practices. Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes provide one such opportunity, where special payments promote cropping the machair, applying seaweed or dung, employing measures that favour grassland birds and managing wetlands sympathetically. There is also support for townships to construct sand-blow fencing and to plant marram against erosion.