Machair - fragile & spectacular

Machair - fragile & spectacular

The spectacular displays of wild flowers in spring and early summer make a visit to the Machair grassland of the Hebrides unforgettable. At the same time, it is one of the rarest habitat types in Europe only occurring in north-west Scotland and western Ireland.

“Machair“ is a Gaelic word meaning an extensive low-lying fertile plain but specifically the long ranges of sandy plains fringing the Atlantic side of the Hebrides. It is a coastal feature, which only occurs under certain climatic, physical and landform conditions. Sand is blown inland onto a low-lying plain and transitions to saline lagoons and saltmarsh, or to calcareous lochs, acidic grasslands, fens, heath or bog. Machair grasslands largely owe their fertility to the high seashell content of the sand - sometimes as high as 90%.

The light, sandy and nutrient-rich soils appealed to prehistoric settlers and farmers, so human influence on the Machair systems reaches back some 4.500 years to Neolithic times. It is believed that although agricultural methods have progressed, a vital component has remained - the use of seaweed. It acts as an important fertilizer, while at the same time binding the soil together and retaining moisture. The manure from the year-round grazing cattle also increases humus formation.

Today the ecological value of Machair is linked to traditional crofting practices - small scale farms, often part-time, that cultivate the land and rear livestock.

Cattle- and sheep-grazing is the typical agricultural land-use. Due to their unselective grazing, cattle improve the quality of the grassland for other grazers as well as for wildlife.


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