Changes in local agricultural practices have occurred that are now threatening the condition of machair habitat, and the conservation status of key flora and fauna populations. In past decades, agri-environment support and bespoke management schemes on machair Natura sites encouraged positive management for wildlife. Payments made by these schemes made a significant contribution to the incomes of crofters within the project area, and they helped to safeguard the conservation interest on these sites.
In a changing socioeconomic context, however, new ways must be found to harmonise machair conservation with new agricultural realities.
All of this means there are now several problems facing machair. These are termed as “threats” and are detailed below:
Description: Arable crops are grown on machairs to provide winter fodder for cattle. In the past, the cultivation of arable crops on machair was normally undertaken over small areas of a few hectares, using very localised traditional seed varieties, and with crop years separated by up to three fallow years when these areas were lightly grazed and used to overwinter cattle. Crops were typically harvested in September, but crops are increasingly being harvested earlier (when still green) and baled as silage. This means it is unlikely that arable wildflowers and weeds will have set seed. There are two main reasons for earlier harvesting. Firstly, some crofters rely on contractors to harvest the crop, so harvest dates are set by contractor availability. Secondly, the threat of crop damage by geese encourages some crofters to harvest their winter fodder early.
Impact on habitats and species: Earlier harvesting of arable crops is a direct threat to the arable weed communities in both the arable and fallow areas. These communities are a key feature of the machair habitat. The arable weed species growing within the crop can’t set seed as they are cut too early in the year. Early cutting of arable crops also removes a valuable source of late cover for corncrakes, who need to move out of grass silage fields when they are cut in August.
Actions to tackle this threat: The project aims to provide additional harvesting capacity in the crofting system to reduce pressure on contractors and allow later cutting of arable crops. This includes the provision of additional agricultural machinery and labour and, in the longer-term, the establishment of local structures (e.g. a machinery ring) that will give this late harvest capability. In addition, by developing and supporting appropriate goose management, the project will aim to reduce the risk of crop damage by geese during the critical late harvest period, so giving crofters the confidence to delay cutting.
Description: Areas of cultivated machair are traditionally sown with an oat/rye mix (with some bere barley), harvested and then left fallow for two to three years when they are grazed by cattle or sheep. However, there has been an increasing tendency to under-sow arable crops with grass seed. This provides better quality grazing for livestock in fallow years by increasing the nutritional quality of the area. However, unfortunately, it also removes the natural fallow component from the rotation and results in poorer arable weed communities and inadequate conditions for ground nesting birds.
Impact on habitats and species: Under-sowing impacts upon arable weed communities in both the arable and fallow components of the cropping rotation, but has a particular impact on the fallow weed community. Under-sowing with grass results in fallow wildflower species being out-competed, and subsequent arable plant communities being much less diverse and abundant. Also, fallow areas are used as nesting habitat by ringed plover and dunlin and when they have been under-sown in previous years, provide inadequate conditions for these species.
Actions to tackle this threat: The project will help crofters to produce or obtain sufficient fodder to reduce the need to under-sow arable crops with grass. The area under cereal cultivation in the Uists and Benbecula has declined in recent years, indicating that there are uncultivated areas of land that could be used to grow additional fodder. There may also be in-bye areas capable of additional grass production. The project will identify these areas, assist with fodder production and help distribute this fodder to crofters who agree not to under-sow their arable crop.
Description: The use of new agricultural techniques and machinery means that some crofters are more efficient and are operating on a larger scale. Change has also been driven by a reduction in the number of active crofters and the time available to the ones that remain to manage the land. Increasingly, due to other pressures (such as age, other jobs, weather), crofters have relied on contractors to carry out a lot of their crop work. Whilst understandable, this may not be god news for the machair, due to the contractor’s flexibility to plant or harvest crops at the best time of year; or because of the type of machinery used by most contractors. Some of these changes have had negative impacts on machair habitats and associated species. Much of the ploughing on machair is now done using modern ploughs pulled by bigger, faster tractors, as opposed to the more traditional shallow ploughs used in the past. Today, many crop areas are fertilised with inorganic mineral fertiliser and the traditional use of beach cast seaweed has declined. The bulk of arable crops are now cut green and baled as silage, whereas in the past cropping was done using reaper-binders with stooks (sheaves) stacked outdoors and fed out to cattle over the winter.
Impact on habitats and species: The threats posed by these changes in techniques are complex and varied. The important arable weed seeds will not germinate if they are buried too deeply by modern ploughs. The increase in ploughing depth and the reduction in the use of cast seaweed means that soil structure and processes have been adversely affected, with further negative impacts on plant communities likely in cropped areas. As well as providing nutrients, seaweed acts as a binding agent to the thin sandy soils of the machair, and erosion of the habitat is a risk without regular seaweed application. The increased use of mineral fertilisers on arable crops can lead to crops that are more vigorous in the early part of the season compared to crops fertilised with seaweed. This increases competition with arable weeds during the period when they begin to germinate. In addition, mineral fertiliser may be having wider effects on wetland habitats on machair. The reduction in both harvesting by reaper binders and the feeding of stooks to cattle over the winter has also contributed to reduced biodiversity in arable weed communities, as these traditional methods occurred later on in the season when grain was ripe and arable weeds had set their seed.
Actions to tackle this threat: The project will investigate the environmental and economic benefits of a range of alternative cultivation techniques through provision of appropriate agricultural machinery that will allow areas of arable machair to be cultivated and harvested in a way that maximises the benefits to the machair habitat. This will include ploughs capable of ploughing a shallower depth, rotovators or similar machinery that can be used to establish crops using minimum tillage methods, harvesting machines to collect traditional varieties of seed, and reaper-binders to allow areas of crop to be harvested traditionally. The project will also assist with the collection and distribution of seaweed in order to reduce crofters’ reliance on mineral fertiliser. Seaweed grabs and possibly specially adapted salt-tolerant tractors, trailers and seaweed spreader will be obtained.
Description: Grass silage is produced in in-bye fields to provide over-winter fodder for cattle. These fields provide habitat for breeding corncrakes, which nest, shelter and rear chicks within or adjacent to them. Late mowing of fields is crucial to ensure that nesting is successful, and mowing should be done in a ‘corncrake-friendly’ fashion to ensure that females and broods can escape to areas of safe cover. Increasingly, however, there is pressure to cut grass fields at the earliest opportunity to reduce the risk of damage by weather or geese. The use of contractors with silage balers has also increased. Without incentives in place to offset the additional costs involved, silage cutting is often done in the most efficient manner.
Impact on habitats and species: Because of the attractiveness of grass crops for breeding corncrakes, these birds are at direct risk from mowing machinery, particularly when the crop is harvested before late August.
Actions to tackle this threat: The action needed to support corncrakes is largely provided through other schemes. However, the project will still highlight and promote the importance of late-cut, bird-friendly silage, and will seek to raise awareness about the need for a holistic approach to conservation management on machair habitats.
Description: The crofting workforce has declined in recent years due to economic and socioeconomic factors. In many communities, capacity is limited in terms of labour and machinery to undertake crofting. Crofters are much more reliant on contractors to undertake the practices such as ploughing and harvesting of crops. As such, crofters are obliged to accept when and how crofting management is undertaken according to the availability of contractors. The result is that traditional practices, (such as late cut silage, seaweed collection/application, and harvesting/feeding of ripened crops) declines, despite a willingness to undertake these practices. However, the greatest risk is of actual croft land abandonment and a further reduction in the area of machair under any kind of management.
Impact on habitats and species: Land abandonment, leads to significant negative changes in the structure, function and biodiversity value of the machair habitat. This would also have a negative impact on ringed plover, dunlin and corncrake, since these species rely on active management of machair and adjacent habitats through extensive grazing regimes or the maintenance of grass fields. Where lack of labour is the main factor, there is a tendency for one crofter, with the help of contractors, to manage larger areas of land in the same way, reducing biodiversity. A recognised feature of traditional arable machair is the “patchwork” appearance of the crop and fallow areas, created by slight variations in management timing and practices on a fine scale. This patchiness adds greatly to the overall biodiversity of machair.
Actions to tackle this threat: The project will develop, demonstrate and promote appropriate and efficient management methods that maximise the biodiversity benefit within a modern crofting system. Given the increasing average age of active crofters, the project will also investigate the additional infrastructure and labour that might be required to produce additional areas of crop that are high in biodiversity. This will be done in discussion with existing contractors to ensure that any gaps that are identified are real and that economic displacement is not an issue. By assessing both skills and labour gaps, any training needs will be identified and opportunities may be created for younger crofters to derive more of a living from land management through either collaboration or job share.
Description: There are limitations in the support for crofters, to assist them with developing and implementing management to benefit biodiversity. The current Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) makes provision for a number of measures that would, if implemented appropriately, benefit the habitats and species that the project is concerned about. However, in the physical and socio-economic circumstances of western Scotland, there is a risk that focus will be lost on biodiversity objectives and communities will lose skills, motivation and incentives to continue beneficial work. Without clear guidance, support and incentives for positive management, there is a real possibility that any agricultural management carried out will fail to deliver positive benefits for the habitats and species associated with machairs. Since many crofters previously obtained advice and a substantial proportion of their crofting income from payment schemes targeting biodiversity (e.g. ESA, Corncrake Management Schemes), and since these previous funding mechanisms are now coming to an end, there is a very real risk that some will abandon this kind of care management altogether.
Impact on habitats and species: All the habitats and species targeted by this project rely on the continuation of extensive agricultural management practices.
Actions to tackle this threat: New agri-environmental support schemes are largely internet based. Although access to the web exists in the project area, many of those who are still actively engaged in managing the land do not yet have either the IT skills or time to use the web based systems. Without additional support within the communities, many crofters will simply not engage with new technology. Building on skills gap assessment, the project will seek to build capacity by running workshops, producing additional guidance on appropriate management methods relevant to the project area, sharing best practice information and setting up demonstration plots. The project will promote necessary management, assist crofters to assess the management requirements of their land and encourage an understanding of the available support schemes.
Description: Arable crops on cultivated machairs of Uist and Benbecula are a mix of oat and rye with a small amount of bere barley. The seed used is a mix of traditional varieties that have adapted to grow well in the mineral-deficient machair soils. Since the seed is locally adapted, there is no need for additional mineral supplements or excessive fertiliser. Each year, some crofters reserve small areas of their crop as a seed crop and sell surplus seed to other crofters, either directly or through the local agricultural suppliers. However, there is normally very little seed crop in reserve, and in some years there have seen shortages in native seed due to unpredictable events that have destroyed seed stores (e.g. weather, flooding, goose damage).
Impact on habitats and species: This threat presents a potential impact to machair habitats and the associated species. Should stocks of traditional seed varieties be severely depleted, crofters would be obliged to buy in and sow non-native varieties, which incur large additional costs. This would jeopardise the cultivation of machair habitats by increasing the economic pressure on crofters. Moreover, if cultivation takes place using imported seed, additional inputs (supplements, fertilisers) would be required to enable those seed types to grow in machair soil.
Actions to tackle this threat: The project will seek to increase the area of crop grown and to assist with protection for patches of seed crop within the target project area. The project will also provide secure seed storage facilities on the Uists (weather- and pest-proof) to ensure that the harvested seed crop is kept in good condition until it is sown.