Rising Sea Levels Due To Global Warming are the leading threat to the unusual coastal ecosystems. Balranald is home to machair, a rare type of habitat that occurs mostly in Scotland and Ireland. Dropping sea levels created this habitat, but rising sea levels could wipe them out.
The Western Isles aren’t exactly the most far-flung of Scotland’s islands—that honor goes to the Shetlands—but stand on the rocky headlands of Balranald, looking west onto the cold, gray North Atlantic, and you feel like you’re hanging onto the rim of the continent. This windswept landscape is the last stop before Newfoundland, which is why so many birds end their westward flights here.
It’s an extraordinary refuge for waders and seabirds, its marshes and sandy bays hosting dunlins, sanderlings, terns, sandpipers, and lapwings aplenty. If that were all North Uist had to offer, birders would still have a reason to come here. But a few steps inland, you’ll find what makes this island really special: the machair.
With its rich tapestry of summer flowers—wild pansies, poppies, marigolds, marsh orchids, eyebrights, silverweed, daisies, purple clover—the machair is a unique sort of grassland, a sort of peaty low-lying pasture that takes over a beach after a drop in sea level creates a new beach. Because its soil is mostly crushed seashells, it’s tremendously fertile.
The machair’s birdlife is amazing: Being so close to the sea, it attracts both meadow species—twites, skylarks, meadow pipets, and corn buntings—and shorebirds like ringed plovers, redshanks, oystercatchers, greylag geese, and barnacle geese. But the real star attraction here is one of Europe’s most endangered species, the corncrake. On the U.K. mainland, the corn-crake has been driven out of its natural habitat by industry and intensive farming practices; the Outer Hebrides now have two-thirds of the U.K. corncrake population. Yet here it’s quite common from mid-April to early August. You can hear its spooky rasping call everywhere, especially at night, but sighting one of these secretive birds is a different matter. Once the machair grows tall in mid-June, the bird is much harder to spot, with its barred brown-and-white back for camouflage. Looking like a slimmer sort of partridge, it steps deftly through the grasses, but the bright chestnut of its wings and legs make it instantly recognizable when it rises in flight.
A 4.8km (3-mile) nature trail winds through the croft land, traversing the machair and leading to the headlands. There’s a visitor center open in summer, at Goulat, near Hougharry, and guided tours are led twice a week.