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What is machair?

Machair is a Gaelic word, meaning an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. Machair has now become a recognised scientific term for a specific coastal feature, defined by some as a type of dune pasture (often calcareous) that is subject to local cultivation. Machair is essentially wind blown sand with a high shell content, sometimes 80 or 90%.

Machair habitat

Globally, machair habitat is extremely rare, totalling approximately 19,000 ha, with 70% of this is in western Scotland, mostly on the Western Isles. As such it is now internationally recognised for its conservation importance, particularly for the internationally important numbers of birds it supports including waders, corncrake, geese and terns. It is designated within the suite of Natura 2000 sites, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA).

Traditional cropping and grazing systems undertaken on machair habitats help to sustain its biodiversity interest, and changes in local agricultural practices, including deeper ploughing, the timing of harvest, the decline in traditional ‘stooking’ of cereal crops, use of inorganic fertilizers and the under-sowing of crops with grass are threatening to reduce the quality of the machair as a habitat for plants, birds and invertebrates.

Recently sown machair, with seaweed fertilizer


Applied Ecology Ltd’s involvement

Applied Ecology Ltd has been contracted by the RSPB to complete two surveys (each lasting about two weeks) annually over the period 2010-2014 as part of the MACHAIR LIFE+ project. MACHAIR LIFE+ is a four-year project running from January 2010 to 2014, which aims to demonstrate that the traditional crofting practices, so important for biodiversity, have a sustainable future. We are conducting surveys of arable plants, ground-active and soil-dwelling invertebrates and major insect pollinator species on 62 farmed machair plots across North and South Uist, Benbecula and Berneray. Supporting work on all plots includes a soil analysis of Mg, P, K, pH and % organic matter.

Dr Chris WoolleyBotanical survey involves estimating the percentage cover of all identified plants (approximately 150 species altogether) in each of five 1m² quadrats placed at random in each plot. This is done on both visits; in June when crops are recently germinated, and in July/August just before harvest -amounting to 620 quadrats.

Thanatophilus dispar (copyright D. I. Gavryushin)

Thanatophilus dispar

To collect ground-dwelling invertebrates, a series of five pitfall traps (large plastic beakers) each part-filled with a preservative solution, is set into the ground so that the beaker rims are level with the soil surface. A sample of soil surface dwelling invertebrates falls into the pot, and after seven days the contents are collected and preserved in alcohol, ready for species identification and analysis later. We have used multivariate statistical analysis tools to identify patterns in the data, and results to date show that the machair supports an important beetle fauna, with 222 species, 36 of which were previously unrecorded on the islands. Of these, 14 species have formal conservation status and three are noted on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: a silphid beetle (Thanatophilus dispar) (shown here), a dryopid beetle (Dryops similaris) and a weevil (Ceutorrhynchus cakilis).

These results demonstrate well how large-scale and systematic sampling can generate highly useful new data even in regions where, as with the Uists, the terrestrial macro-invertebrate fauna is considered to be already well documented.” – Peter Hammond, Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum in London.

The plant and invertebrate survey work to date, has shown that different land use management regimes have resulted in distinct arable plant and ground dwelling invertebrate assemblages. This has implications for wider biodiversity conservation in the Outer Hebrides, and suggests that the existing small scale pattern and variation in arable cultivation and long rotation (fallow) helps maximise the biodiversity value of the arable machair. Four years’-worth of survey will cover a full arable rotation for most plots, with periods of both fallow and crop production included. Interpretation of our results will provide a fuller picture of the relationship between arable farming techniques (including both, traditional methods and modern trends) and biodiversity on the machair.

You can read more about Applied Ecology Ltd’s involvement in the project in the MACHAIR LIFE+ newsletter:

Machair Life Newsletter – Issue 4 – November 2011

Machair Life Newsletter – Issue 3 – June 2011

Machair Life Newsletter – Issue 2 – December 2010

Machair Life Newsletter – Issue 1 – June 2010