The future

Many examples of machair have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation (under the European Directives) or as nature reserves. This helps promote appropriate management for the benefit of wildlife. But there are more major problems. With global warming adding to a gradual rise in sea level and an increase in Atlantic storms, the threat of erosion is greater than ever. Rabbits, and stock, can add to dune erosion, while dumping of rubbish, uncontrolled vehicle/caravan access to machair and dune buggies or motorbikes tearing up sand slopes can create local problems. Yet still, there are few beaches more lovely and unspoilt than those of the Northern and Western Isles; all very important for the local tourist trade (though perhaps midges, cool winds and cold seas help make sure they never become over popular!)

Marram should never be abused. It should be cut only for thatching, or for transplanting in dune stabilisation works, within strict guidelines, in moderation and well back from any actively-eroding edge. Every opportunity should be taken to prevent blow-outs, and any replanting should be undertaken as sensitively as possible. Marram is always a better solution than unsightly, less effective and expensive, man-made defences.

Left over from the Ice Age, shingle beaches form a vital defence from eroding waves. The preservation of this natural barrier is very important and it should only be interfered with in exceptional circumstances; and certainly not for commercial uses. Kelp beds are another important protection so any offshore exploitation by the seaweed industry should be discouraged, The winter cast of tangle not only provides vital protection against storms and erosion but is also essential to the maintenance of the machair and traditional land use.

Machair is a unique and dynamic habitat. It is one of the best examples of a distinctive culture with a finely-tuned land use successfully supporting an extremely rich wildlife resource. Generations of local folk have understood enough of the system to use it to their advantage, to cherish it for their very survival and to pass on this knowledge to their children. But pressures of modern living threaten to undermine that ancient balance. We still need to have a better understanding of machair and its wildlife in order that the needs of the people living there can be provided for, since machair without people would be a very much poorer place. In accepting that sand blow will always be a necessary feature of life on the Atlantic fringe, we need to be aware of the most effective ways to contain it so that the experience of Skara Brae’s deserted village may remain a feature of prehistory.