One hundred days of LIFE on Machair

LIFE on Machair project manager Dr. Catherine Farrell reflects on some thoughts at the beginning of the EU funded LIFE on Machair project which runs from 2022 to 2028.

It’s been a few months since I took up the post of project manager of LIFE on Machair at the start of Spring 2022, and before the benchmark of my first 100 days fades into the dim and distant past, I wanted to share a couple of basic understandings and insights to Machair systems. These have been gleaned from essential reading but largely from my travels between Connemara, the coasts of Mayo and the headlands of Donegal, and the many rich conversations I’ve shared with people I met along the way.

Before I get into the detail of what Machair actually is and why it’s important, the main thing that has struck me has been the keen interest locally, and importantly, the high levels of enthusiasm for the project from those living within and alongside the LIFE on Machair project sites. These people come from a myriad of backgrounds – from farming to nature conservation, tourism to local amenity, bird watchers to bumblebee enthusiasts, and to those who are general appreciators of the natural world. While the word Machair itself can cause some confusion (it’s not a widely used term by communities local to Machair sites), we find common ground in sharing a deep appreciation and respect for the coast and the sheer force of the Atlantic, with all its hidden wonderful creatures that bob their heads up every now and then, to say hello to those of us confined to living on land.

Machair – where land meets sea and all sorts of magic happens in between.

What is Machair and why is it important?

Machair comes from the gaelic word maghera, meaning plain, often inferred as ‘grassy plain’. You can find maghera attached to plenty of Irish place names inland but you will find it especially on the coast. Think Mageragallon and Magheraroarty – two beautiful coastal dune / Machair sites in North West Donegal.

Sweeping Machair Complex
Sweeping Machair complex at Lurgabrack (Donegal), looking north to Horn Head on the horizon.

The word Machair itself is of Scot’s gaelic origin and while it is in widespread use in the Western Isles of the Scottish North West, up until the 1980s we hadn’t yet distinguished this rare habitat complex in Ireland. The first account of Irish Machair was published in 1980, and described that of the Mullet peninsula in County Mayo (there’s a lot of Machair on the Mullet!).  Indeed, Machair is unique to the north west of Ireland and Scotland, though a few sites south of Galway almost make the cut, falling short on technicalities (it’s complex and happy to follow that conversation again, but on a beach…). 

While the term Machair or maghera describes the grassy plains underpinned by sand with a high water table (note that water is very important for Machair, as the wetness prevents the sand actually blowing away), it can also be applied to the broader landscape system itself. In the same way that we talk about bog habitats within a bog landscape, machair grassland lies within the Machair system. This system, or complex, can comprise a number of distinct habitats. First and foremost, the beach and drift-line – these are crucial elements really and the source of all that wonderful sand. Then to the fore dunes (these can seem to ‘move’ a lot which, not surprisingly, has given them the name ‘mobile dunes’), the fixed dunes (often 20 m in height and probably best known by kids as ‘great spots to be rolling down’ on summer holidays) and the level grassy plain derived from sand blown inland from the dunes ‘in front’ by the Atlantic winds (the machair habitat). The Machair system is more often than not backed on the landward side by a lake or a fen (a wetland trapped by the sand that has blown in over time), all before rising into the bog-scape that tends to dominate these parts of Ireland and Scotland. Indeed, the Machair and the bog systems are intimately connected, with species migrating between these systems and using them at different times of the year for breeding and/or feeding. In some places (like at Garter Hill in Mayo) we can also find the bog hidden by sandy beaches and Machair – the black, compressed peat exposed in places, giving us a hint of how dynamic our coastal systems have been, and will continue to be.

Machair complexes are significant refuges for an array of habitats and species that are unique and rare such as the Machair grassland itself (a priority habitat under EU legislation), as well as those birds and pollinators that have been largely marginalised by the intensification of our agricultural systems over recent decades (think the charismatic Great Yellow Bumble Bee which is now confined to the Mullet peninsula, though previously more wide ranging in species-rich hay meadows through the Irish midlands). Prior to agricultural intensification, it was the extensive nature of our farming that maintained the diversity of these areas. No surprise then when we consider that the word duach, found in tandem with so many of our coastal Machair sites – Doonloughan, Dooagtry, Doogort, Dooagh – refers to the traditional agricultural practice where stock (traditional breed cattle) were summered on the boggy hills and mountains adjoining the Machair, and wintered on the Machair (or sandybanks as they are called in Mayo), which was used in the main as commonage. Farming and people ensured a species rich Machair sward and sufficient diversity of habitat for waders like Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank, Snipe, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher to breed successfully in the summer while more gregarious species like Barnacle Geese and Chough grazed these sites in the winter. 

Sheep Grazing on Machair
Sheep grazing on Machair – no ‘bee-loud glade’ here, only a few daisies.

What has happened to change our Machair systems?

Farming has changed dramatically, as society has changed, since the 1970s. That change has been driven by agricultural policy and payment systems. Arguably, this is another complex topic which requires several doctoral degrees in itself to unravel, but the key message is that the traditional duach practice has largely been replaced. There are less cattle and more sheep, and while Machair systems were traditionally ‘rested’ in summer months, allowing them to bloom to their full potential and allow waders to fledge chicks under that precious colourful cover, there is no such respite anymore. Sheep graze throughout the year in places, meaning no species diverse sward, no cover and a dramatic decline in those easy to miss pollinators (bees, hoverflies and butterflies and all the other creatures out of sight but often heard though not seen) that once thrived there.  And where hardy breeds were traditionally reared, we have switched to heavier continental breeds, less capable of bearing up against the windy winters at the harsh Atlantic coalface. The changes have left significant marks and silenced places like the Inishkea Islands off the coast of Mayo – once a jewel in the Machair crown of Ireland – where overgrazing by sheep has impacted on breeding waders to the point of near local extinction for species such as Dunlin.

Bailey Mor
Bailey Mor on Inishkea North – the islands boast numerous archaeological sites and were important centres in the Early Christian period.
Overgrazed Machair
Overgrazing of the Machair on the Inishkeas is leading to loss of habitat and near local extinction of breeding waders.

Something else changed though, and in recent years we have increased our demands for amenity and ‘experiences’ along our Atlantic coast. Camping, ad hoc driving, fires, dumping, trampling – the cumulative effects of hundreds of seasonal visitors has a severe (and in fairness, mostly unintentional) effect on Machair sites, especially where birds and other species are struggling already to exist in heavily degraded habitat conditions.

What can we do to conserve and restore our precious Machair systems?

Well, it starts with an idea, then it turns into a proposal, and then it becomes an EU funded project called LIFE on Machair.

Flora on Machair
Machair beauty: small things matter.

LIFE on Machair will serve to shine a light on the challenges for Machair systems in Ireland, and we will work on selected project sites, scoping and developing solutions to ensure that we can all enjoy and appreciate these precious areas now and in the future. 

  • Over the next six years we will:
    • Establish the story of each project site (every Machair has a different story – ecologically and culturally).
    • Identify what condition each site should be in and how to get there.
    • Scope out solutions with those who work and live alongside the Machair, and
    • Work to pilot those solutions (aka make a plan for each site and learn by doing).

Learning collectively we can devise reward systems in terms of results based approaches for farming with nature (similar to those developed by the Burren LIFE project and the subsequent Burren programme), and activate measures for tourism, amenity and coastal protection that work for the communities and the characteristics of each site.

We don’t have all the answers but working together we will certainly use our knowledge and experiences to effect the changes required. That means working across sectors, across communities and across perspectives. That means nature conservation working alongside farmers and farming organisations, local communities working with state agencies and local authorities. That means working to find a common ground so that we can reverse the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as expressed on our Machair systems right across the North West coast of Ireland. 

LIFE on Machir – Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine

Machair systems form a narrow boundary between land and sea, and apart from comprising a unique and highly valued assemblage of habitats and species, they have been integral to sustaining and supporting farming families and communities for millennia. They are truly cultural landscapes, and their conservation and restoration therefore relies strongly on the people living within and alongside them. This work is important, not least given the fact that these humble and seemingly benign looking systems are critical in terms of the coastal protection they provide for us, at no cost.

We’re only at the beginning, but after one hundred days it is clear that any Machair focused project has to be collaborative. We all stand to lose these precious natural and cultural treasures, and so we all have skin in the game.  Fortunately, the interest and willingness is there, and that in itself makes for a good beginning.