Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A Western Isles idyll where wild flowers grow in profusion

I was bowled over by the machair. It is unparalleled in the British Isles

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Sometimes a celebrated natural habitat can be a disappointment when you see it for the first time: people can find this with tropical rainforest, for example, especially in the Amazon. You may be expecting a scene such as the one on a rainforest jigsaw my children once possessed, which showed exciting wildlife everywhere on display, with jaguars and monkeys and brilliantly coloured macaws peering from behind every leaf; but in reality what you tend to encounter, on your initial visit at least, is a dark wall of densely-packed trees from which nothing emanates except the occasional unidentifiable scream.

You don't want to admit you're disappointed; but you are. Yet I have just encountered a celebrated habitat for the first time, and had the opposite experience: I was bowled over by it. It was the machair, the long ribbon of meadows behind the beaches on the western side of the Western Isles. The beaches themselves are spectacular, broad causeways of brilliant white shell-sand fringing a blue Atlantic, and it is this sand which provides the machair with a substrate enormously rich in calcium carbonate and thus favourable to plant growth.

The result is a wealth of wild flowers which would seem to be unparalleled in the British Isles: the only comparison I can think of is the chalk grassland of Salisbury Plain, never sprayed with agricultural chemicals because of the century-long presence of the army, but even Salisbury Plain, jewelled with its rock-rose, its sainfoin, its betony and much else, does not really compare. I think it was the profusion, more than anything, which took me aback. It is easy to love the animated colourful chaos of a proper wild flower meadow in the rest of Britain, where such a treat survives, but the number of brightly flowering species will actually be rather limited; on the machair, they go on and on.

The base, as it were, seems to be meadow buttercups and red clover, but these are backed up with white clover and silverweed (which has a silvery sheen on its leaves and a banana-yellow flower). There are wide stands of dark blue tufted vetch, lemon-yellow lady's bedstraw, and creamy meadowsweet, its red-brown stems looking like miniature flagpoles, and in the damper corners there are glowing patches of ragged robin, that exquisite, pale-pink relation of red campion which is becoming very uncommon in England, as well as the stunning purple spikes of marsh orchids; in the drier patches the harebells are in flower. Watching a harebell, I saw it flutter; I looked again and it was a common blue butterfly, its wings precisely the same shade of pale lilac as the harebell petals. The machair is immensely rich in both insects and birds: we were surrounded by oystercatchers, lapwings and curlews, wheatears bounced around, and on a wooden gate, to the children's delight, we saw a big, fat, brown juvenile cuckoo, and the confused-looking meadow pipit which had raised it.

This was all in south Harris, one of the loveliest corners of the Hebrides. It may be all old hat to you, if you know the islands well and know the machair and how special it is. I didn't; but I do now.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

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