Summer

. . . About the first of June when the cattle are put upon it, it is all over as white as a cloth, with daisies, and white clover. In that season, there may be seen pasturing upon it at once, about 1000 black cattle, 2000 sheep and 300 horses intermixed with immense flocks of lapwings and green plovers.

Reverend Dr John Walker (1764)

The Atlantic shores of the Highlands and Islands are a patchwork of beaches, sand dunes, grassland, croftland, wetlands and lochs. Such a range of opportunities for wildlife is so much more enhanced by the way the people manage the land. Rotating the cultivation of the machair year by year provides regular opportunities for annual plants to seed and re-establish. This helps create the spectacular displays of flowers for which the machair is well known. Tiree alone can boast over 500 species of wild plants.

Cultivated machair also has greater numbers and variety of invertebrates. Earthworms, snails, grasshoppers, flies, spiders and harvestmen are all numerous on machair but there are relatively few butterflies and moths; meadow brown, common blues and small tortoiseshell butterflies are most common with dark arches and common rustic being the most widespread moths. The belted beauty is an interesting machair moth – the females being flightless – and one theory is that they might have reached offshore islands on rafts of dead wood. Various bumble bees, including one or two Hebridean specialities, are common over machair grassland.

Birds

The Hebrides have become the last British stronghold of the corncrake with most occurring in Lewis, the Uists and Barra, and Tiree. Long ago people believed corncrakes spent the winter under the ice but we now know that, in May, they arrive from Africa. Rarely seen but characteristically noisy, they seek early cover in iris beds until the hayfields grow tall enough. Although special measures are included for them in the ESAs of the Uists, Shetland and the Argyll Islands, corncrakes tend to be birds of the croftland and hay meadows more than machair grassland and crops.

Corn buntings still thrive on cultivated machair in the Uists and Tiree, but are on the verge of extinction on mainland farms. Twite is another characteristic bird of the machair, replacing the linnet found elsewhere, while the rare little tern often forsakes the foreshore to nest on the cultivated land.

Undoubtedly, machair is most famous for its waders. Over 25,000 pairs bred each year on machair during the 1980s, some 6,000 in Tiree alone, with over 17,000 in the Uists and Barra. The other machair areas, in Orkney, Shetland and on the Irish or Scottish mainland, are less rich.

The most numerous wader is the peewit or lapwing, a bird now increasingly rare on intensive farmland on the mainland. In the Uists, lapwing breed in the highest densities among the dune slacks and on drier grasslands (up to 85 pairs per kmē). There are fewer in damp machair and fewest on dry cultivated machair and croftland; in Tiree lapwing densities are lower still.

Dunlin are more specific in their breeding requirements preferring the tufted vegetation of wet machair to conceal their nests. A record density of some 300 pairs per kmē was recorded from one area of South Uist in the 1980s, when some 40% of the British population were to be found on the machairs of the Uists and Tiree alone.

Redshank and snipe prefer the taller vegetation of marshes and wetlands but since the latter tend to be pretty secretive their numbers are likely to have been underestimated. With longer beaks, redshank and snipe (together with dunlin) can probe deeper into wet ground to find food.

It is the oystercatcher and ringed plover that are most dependent upon crofting practices. Both will nest on dry cultivated machair and up to 400 pairs per kmē of ringed plover have been recorded on ploughed land or recent fallow in the Uists; all together amounting to nearly one-third of the total breeding population in Britain. Ringed plover will also nest on shingle beaches or bare ground, where their camouflaged eggs are best concealed; they also like the broken runways on The Reef in Tiree.