The call of the corncrake and the magic of the machair

All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today we hear from Jamie Boyle, Site Manager at our Balranald Reserve, about the wonderful relationship between corncrakes and traditional farming techniques within this unique protected site.

It’s early morning in May and the rattling calls of the first arriving corncrakes and a multitude of displaying waders can be heard over the wet fields of Balranald Nature Reserve. The reserve is situated on the west of the island of North Uist and is unusual for an RSPB reserve, because we do not manage the site ourselves.

Instead, the crofters manage this heavily protected area and under their management the wildlife thrives. This site is a wonderful demonstration that protected areas and other land uses do not have to be mutually exclusive and that, in the right circumstances and with admirable partnership working, they can go hand in hand in a beautiful symbiotic relationship that works for people and for nature.

The whole of the reserve receives a triple-level of protection, for being important at national, European and international scales. The site is particularly special for its breeding corncrakes and species of wading bird along with the botanical interest of the machair and the fantastic wetlands. Machair is a unique type of globally rare coastal grassland that is famous for its transformation into a jewelled carpet of wildflowers during the summer months – in fact almost 70% of the world’s machair is found in the Outer Hebrides.

Corncrake singing in nettles by Cliff Reddick

The reserve is split into about forty crofts, and each croft is made up of parcels of land that are scattered throughout the reserve. The low input farming practiced within these crofts is still fairly traditional and consists of cattle and sheep farming. The machinery is modern but practices stay the same. This is demonstrated in the management of the arable crops on the machair. Areas are cultivated on a four year rotation with two years of crops followed by two years fallow with almost no herbicides or pesticides used. Fertilizers are mostly artificial although some crofters still use seaweed, in keeping with tradition. Artificial fertilizers have enabled the crofters to cultivate larger areas and keep higher numbers of stock. The crops here are harvested as winter feed for the cattle.

An attractive mosaic is formed by this unique combination of arable and grass crops which are mixed in with the fallow areas and wetlands. Corncrakes move between the grass and arable areas, although they rarely nest in the corn, adults and their young use the area to hide and feed in.

Clover and vetches first year fallow by Jamie Boyle

A haze of activity is being undertaken on the machair as crofters finish their cultivations. Tractors are moving up and down ploughing, harrowing, sowing and rolling. By mid-May all cultivation work will be completed and all the animals will be moved off the machair to other parts of the croft or the hill grazings. This leaves the crops to grow on the machair and allows all the uncultivated areas and fallows to start their flower blooming season. Under carefully managed township rules, no animals will be allowed back until all the crops have been harvested. This gives the area a long summer break from grazing and allows the incredible wildflower spectacle to flourish for over four months. The prolonged growing season also gives the corncrakes a fighting chance of raising two all-important broods, before leaving on their journey back to their African winter home.