Overall Project Purpose
Overall project purpose: Secure and improve the conservation status of 70% of the world’s machair habitat and its associated species by implementing and demonstrating sustainable management methods that optimise the conservation interest and are compatible with local crofting practices.

The project will target machair habitat on three SACs and will secure the conservation of associated bird species in 10 machair SPAs - this covers a total area of 23,766 ha. The project will bring 3,200 ha of machair habitat into favourable condition and improve the conservation status of the Annex 1 species corncrake and chough, and the regularly occurring migratory species dunlin and ringed plover.

Earlier harvesting of arable crops is a threat to arable and fallow weed communities on machair habitats. The project will aim to alleviate some of the pressures that lead to early harvest and mitigate any negative effects of later harvesting.

Actions and means involved: The project will build capacity among the crofting community to provide the additional resources needed during the busy harvest period to encourage an expansion in late harvested crops. The project will support and run greylag goose management schemes to reduce the threat posed by native geese to late standing crops. The project will fully monitor and evaluate the effects of these actions.

Expected results: An increase in the area of late harvested arable crop on cultivated machairs in Uist and Benbecula. Harvesting dates will ensure that arable weed communities have had a chance to set seed. Demonstration of these techniques to crofting communities, as well as the costs, and the technical and biodiversity implications, will be fully evaluated.

Under-sowing areas of arable crop with grass seed reduces the biodiversity of arable weed communities in crop and fallow years. This may also have a negative effect on nesting habitat of wading bird species. The project aims to promote a better understanding of the connection between thriving machair communities and good environmental condition of machair habitats, with a view to promoting a more holistic approach to management.

Actions and means involved: The project will seek an increase in arable winter fodder production on machair to compensate for lower quality grazing on natural fallows. Additional areas of machair will be identified and cropped, and where appropriate, in-bye fields will be used for grass fodder production. Through a process of collaboration, this fodder will be made available to crofters who do not under-sow crops on arable machair SACs. Skills training, machinery and labour will be made available where these are the limiting factors for either traditional arable cultivation or additional fodder production.

Expected results: A reduction in the area of under-sown crop on key arable machair sites on SACs. Raised awareness of the biodiversity benefits of arable fallows in the machair system. An expansion by approximately 15 ha in the area of cropped machair in the Uists and Benbecula. Better collaboration between managers of arable machair and grassland machair sites.

Machair crofting is increasingly carried out using large, modern machinery, with contractors carrying out an ever-increasing amount of land management. However, certain practices may not deliver the same conservation benefits as traditional methods. Without clear demonstration of the benefits of more sensitive techniques, these technical advances and modern practices may severely affect the conservation interest on machair SACs and SPAs.

Actions and means involved: The project will identify a range of arable crop production techniques that are more suited to conservation management, but should still deliver local agricultural requirements. The project will provide suitable agricultural machinery to allow beneficial management practices to be undertaken on machair sites. The project will demonstrate and promote these practices to the wider crofting community, to key stakeholders in the agricultural and conservation sectors and to relevant government agencies.

Expected results: Demonstration of techniques to active crofters and to crofting contractors on the Uists and Benbecula. Implementation and monitoring of appropriate techniques on about 60ha of machair habitat on machair SACs. The availability of fully evaluated and costed agri-environment scheme measures for consideration during development of future Rural Development Programmes.

The corncrake uses in-bye grassland fields for breeding. With sensitive management planning, these in-bye areas could continue to provide corncrake benefits while providing additional locally grown fodder for crofting communities.

Actions and means involved: The project will work with crofters to ensure that there is availability of sustainably produced grass silage as over-winter fodder. This will be used to offset the winter livestock feed requirements of those crofters who don’t under-sow their arable crops. A collaborative approach to machair management will need to be facilitated between crofters and farmers who have different types of holding. On Tiree, the project will seek to re-introduce arable crops into in-bye field rotations to give late cover for corncrakes when adjacent fields of grass are cut. The project will run a greylag goose management scheme on Coll & Tiree to give crofters greater flexibility in in-bye management.

Expected results: More sustainable in-bye management with grass silage production more closely linked to the wider machair crofting system. Secure management for corncrakes on corncrake SPAs in the project area. Demonstration of beneficial collaborative management to the crofting community.

Socio-economic factors are largely responsible for limitations in the availability of labour and the right machinery needed to undertake the beneficial management practices required on designated machair sites. This has lead to greater reliance on contractors and less flexibility in management practices and the timing of management such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting.

Actions and means involved: The project will develop, demonstrate and promote conservation management techniques that best suit the circumstances in today’s crofting communities. The project will work with these communities to establish the critical factors that prevent management that is appropriate for biodiversity outcomes. The project will provide machinery and training to give additional flexibility and expand opportunities for individual crofters to undertake management.

Expected results: There will be a better understanding of the reasons for change in crofting communities and a full evaluation of the practices and incentives necessary to maintain High Nature Value farming on these Natura sites.

Due to the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there is a risk that current economic pressures, combined with changes in market demand will further increase the speed at which agricultural practices will change on machair habitats. A lack of new entrants to agriculture combined with an increased average age among land users adds to current pressures on available labour. However, unless communities continue to use their natural environment as a means of levering additional agricultural support there is a very real danger that the environmental benefits from previous agri environment schemes will be lost.

Actions and means involved: This project will work with crofting communities to build skills through workshops, the provision of guidance material on best-practice management and by demonstrating key skills and practices. The project will work with Scottish Government to identify and develop measures and seek their inclusion in revised and subsequent Rural Development Programmes.

Expected results: An expanded skills base, opportunities for new entrants and better understanding of best practice management methods. Raised awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of the High Nature Value farming practices undertaken throughout the project area.

Local crop seed varieties that are adapted to flourish on machair ensure the continuation of a low input cereal crop system, which is crucial for the maintenance of the biodiversity interest of Scotland’s machairs. However, recent events such as accidental damage to seed stores and extensive damage to standing seed crops by greylag geese, have highlighted the vulnerability of the seed supply.

Actions and means involved: The project will assist with the protection of designated seed crops and will provide a secure storage facility for the native seed.

Expected results: Weather, predator and flood proof storage facility established. Reduced risk of having to use imported seed and additional inputs. Raised awareness of the importance of local seed to the machair system.