SHARE

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.