Tiree’s machair is an ancient and beautiful habitat that can survive the worst storms nature throws at it. But on this, and other Hebridean islands, the machair is suffering permanent damage through cars and vans driving off road.
More threatened than the world’s rainforests, machair is a flower-rich habitat made up of grasses and other plants growing on a thin, sandy soil. It is found only in Scotland and Ireland, and much of it is protected by European law.
To help resolve the issues, an island-led community access project, led by Tiree Rural Development Ltd and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage and Argyll Estates has been initiated to improve access to key beaches through new access tracks and car parks. New signage is also being put up, including a striking surfboard-shaped sign at the RSPB’s Reef nature reserve.
John Bowler is the RSPB Scotland officer at The Reef, one of the most popular spots on the island for windsurfing. He said: “It’s fantastic that so many people are coming to visit the island and make use of the one thing that Tiree certainly has a never-ending supply of: the wind! But a small number of people are causing serious damage to the machair by driving their vehicles over it. What happens is that the wheels break through the top layer allowing the wind and rain to get in. Once that happens, it can never recover. Erosion sets in, and before you know it, large areas are just gone.
“We want people to keep coming here and enjoying Tiree’s world-class beaches. By sticking to the car parks and designated access tracks they will be helping us to preserve the machair for future generations.”
Alasdair Steele, from Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Surfers and windsurfers tend to have a pretty strong environmental conscience. We all need to make sure that our enjoyment of the amazing windsurfing and surfing conditions Tiree provides doesn’t come at any cost to the unique ecosystems it possesses. The beauty of these sports is they really don’t need to have any negative environmental impact at all if people behave responsibly. I am sure recreational water users will get behind this initiative and stick to the tracks in future. I suspect people straying in the past has mainly been down to ignorance rather than malice, and now that the signs spells it out there is no excuse!”
Machair is formed when shell-rich sand blows inland from beaches creating a low-lying plain that plants start to colonise. Over generations, crofters graze their animals on this grassland, improving it gently using seaweed fertilisers and allowing a unique mix of grasses and flowers to thrive.
This in turn provides an ideal habitat for rare birds, like corncrakes, insects like the great yellow bumblebee, and plants like the curiously named Irish lady’s-tresses.
Machair is also important for people, particularly local crofters, whose livelihoods depend upon the rich grazing areas that lie between the coast and the island’s tarmac roads.
You can find out more about machair at www.machairlife.org.uk