Scottish machair - Conserving machair habitats and species in a suite of Scottish Natura sites

LIFE08 NAT/UK/000204

Project description   Environmental issues   Beneficiaries   Administrative data   Read more   Print   PDF version  

Contact details:

Project Manager: Rebecca COTTON
Tel: +44 (0) 1870 603 361
Email: Machair.LIFE@rspb.org.uk

Project description:


Machair is a unique coastal habitat listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive that is found only on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Formed by calcium rich sand being blown onto acidic soil, the habitat has been keenly influenced by land management practices among the traditional crofting and farming communities, with extensive grazing and low intensity crop rotations. The machair also supports a wide range of wading birds in extremely high densities [such as ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) and dunlin (Calidris alpina schinzii)], while also providing suitable habitat for a range of other Annex 1 Birds Directive migratory species (such as Corncrake [Crex crex] and chough [Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax]). In recent years there has been a shift towards more intensive agriculture, with greater use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which threatens this unique habitat. The areas where machair is found are also facing problems with de-population with people leaving agriculture to seek employment opportunities away from the rural community.


The Scottish machair LIFE project ran from January 2010 to March 2014. The project had a single beneficiary, the RSPB, but drew upon a broad partnership, including local government, national government and local interest groups. The purpose of the project was to demonstrate that agriculture could combine production with environmental sensitivity to protect the incredible biodiversity associated with the machair habitat on the Hebridean Islands of Scotland.

The project’s overall aim was therefore to 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 optimised the conservation interest, and were compatible with local agricultural practices. The project targeted machair habitat on three SACs and aimed to secure the conservation of associated bird species in 10 machair SPAs - this covers a total area of over 23 000 ha. The project would also bring 3200 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.

Specific objectives included:

  • Expanding the area of late harvested crop on arable machairs;
  • Reducing the area of under-sown arable crop;
  • Introducing best practice arable crop production including cultivation techniques and demonstrating these to the crofting community;
  • Identifying constraints to active management and increasing the capacity to undertake beneficial management in crofting and farming communities on designated sites; and
  • Securing the supply of local arable seed.


The main project objectives of the Scottish machair LIFE project (to expand the area of late-harvested crops, promote shallow ploughing, secure local seed supply etc) were achieved, and in many cases exceeded. The project thus provided strong habitat benefits, with site condition monitoring showing improved status (on sites where this has been recently carried out). This is testament to the strong work carried out by the project and support given to crofters.

The project was also able to facilitate a variety of community engagement activities which raised the awareness of the habitat and the objectives of the project. Of crucial importance were the outcomes of the crop protection measures trialled by the project, which significantly reduced the amount of goose damage to crops during the period. Furthermore, the project was able to demonstrate the positive impact of seaweed as a fertiliser (both for production and for biodiversity) and the use of shallow ploughing and rotavation for soil preparation.

While certain aspects of the legacy of the project were not confirmed at the end of the project (in particular the next phase of the Scottish Rural Development Programme’s agri-environment support), there was much to be positive about. The project machinery was passed on to a local contractor who agreed to continue the work of the project. The beneficiary had also helped to support the creation of a crofting course in conjunction with the University of the Highlands and Islands (which will help to up-skill crofters, and train them on environmentally sensitive techniques).

In addition, the work of the project has helped to secure additional funding for the management of geese, which should help to maintain crofting on the machair as a viable agricultural activity.

Lessons learnt included the challenges involved in influencing government policy. This is always difficult, and even with a strong advocacy and policy focus within the beneficiary, it is not always possible to cause change. This underscores once again the importance of planning the legacy of the project from its start. Other lessons learnt included the importance of community engagement. The project demonstrated great innovation in how they worked with local schools and colleges to raise awareness and appreciation of the landscape. By coupling traditional and new land management techniques, the project was able to engage strongly with the local crofting community.

The project carried out a socio-economic study on crofting on the islands to establish the drivers of farming on the very margins of Europe. There is no doubt that crofting can only be a full-time occupation for a very limited number of people, and that other income streams are necessary. This is key to understanding how this important method of farming is retained. For crofters to continue to manage land in a sensitive manner (which is often more time-consuming and less economically attractive) they need to be incentivised. While some crofters will continue to use low impact and traditional techniques, this will not draw more people into crofting, with agricultural becoming even more marginal. The project demonstrated that the way EU funds are managed does not allow the flexibility to address the very heterogenous farming landscape.

A number of important longer-term changes had been made. Firstly, one of the biggest threats to crofting was the increasing number of geese on the islands and their negative impact on crofting. Through a crop protection scheme the project demonstrated that for relatively modest amounts of money effective measures could be taken to protect the crops. However, there was also recognition that the goose population needed to be reduced. Funding was secured by the beneficiary to carry out Adaptive Management, which allowed birds to be shot in the spring, ahead of the breeding season. This is funded for four years (through to 2016). Furthermore, the project has also secured additional funding of £90 000, which will allow the crop protection work to continue for two years after LIFE.

Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).


Environmental issues addressed:


Habitats - Coastal


agricultural method‚  migratory species‚  protected area‚  nature conservation

Target EU Legislation

  • Nature protection and Biodiversity
  • Directive 92/43 - Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora- Habitats Directiv ...
  • COM(2001)162 -"Biodiversity Action Plan for the conservation of natural resources (vol. I & II)" ...

Target species

 Calidris alpina schinzii   Crex crex   Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 

Target Habitat types

  • 21A0 - Machairs (* in Ireland)

Natura 2000 sites

SPA UK9001082 South Uist Machair and Lochs
SPA UK9001741 Ness & Barvas, Lewis
SPA UK9001751 Aird & Borve, Benbecula
SPA UK9001761 Eoligarry, Barra
SPA UK9003034 Tiree (corncrake)
SCI UK0019804 North Uist Machair
SCI UK0030247 Rinns of Islay



Coordinator The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Type of organisation NGO-Foundation
Description The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a British charity that works to promote conservation and protection of birds and the wider environment. The RSPB has 1 500 employees, 12 200 volunteers and over 1 million members, making it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. It maintains more than 200 reserves across the United Kingdom.
Partners Scottish Natural Heritage, United Kingdom Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, United Kingdom


Project reference LIFE08 NAT/UK/000204
Duration 01-JAN-2010 to 31-MAR -2014
Total budget 2,735,031.00 €
EU contribution 1,367,515.00 €
Project location Scotland(United Kingdom)


Read more:

Project web site Project's website
Project web site - 2 Facebook page of the project
Project web site - 2 Flickr page of the project
Publication: After-LIFE Conservation Plan After-LIFE Conservation Plan
Publication: Layman report Layman report (Crofting and the Machair)
Publication: Layman report Layman report (People and the Machair)
Publication: Layman report Layman report (Wildlife and the Machair)
Publication: Technical report Project's Final technical report


Project description   Environmental issues   Beneficiaries   Administrative data   Read more   Print   PDF version