We are reformers in the spring and summer, but in autumn we stand by the old. Reformers in the morning, and conservers at night. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
The sight of a mixed cereal field on the machair in the Outer Hebrides is sufficient to give any East Anglian cereal baron apoplexy. You would not be too far wrong in thinking this was oilseed rape, it is in fact charlock (Sinapis arvensis) growing as an agricultural weed in machair strips sown with small oats and barley.
The cereals (local varieties of small oats, barley and rye) are grown for livestock food and are either cut green for silage or allowed to ripen to be thrashed for seed for the following year or used as winter feed for cattle. This is low-input traditional agriculture that uses no agricultural chemicals, hence the abundance of wild flowers (agricultural weeds), insects and grassland birds such as corncrakes, skylarks and lapwings. The flowers of our fields, once common throughout the UK, are now nationally rare, but here they delight the eye and remind us of a time when agriculture and wildlife were able to co-exist. In modern terms it is not economically viable, but environmentally, socially and culturally its value is “beyond rubies”.
As time moves on the old ways are being lost, like vintage tractors old crofters can not continue for ever and there is more and more pressure for the old stooks and hay stacks to be replaced by the plastic wrapped, giant silage bales. There is still an agri-environmental scheme which encourages crofters to continue to use the traditional methods, but each year the payments are reduced as economic values outweigh environmental concerns. Our fears for the future are not just nostalgia for a golden past, but they are about maintaining crofting communities and their unique culture. If the traditional farming methods disappear and the machair is not managed, using the age-old system of rotational grazing and cereal cultivation, this unique grassland habitat will be lost. Over 80% of the world’s machair is to be found in the Outer Hebrides and it could be lost in a generation.
I am not advocating that crofting communities and their way of life should be preserved in aspic like some grotesque theme park or farming museum. The vintage machinery may have to be cherished by enthusiasts and displayed at the annual agricultural shows, but we cannot sacrifice corn fields filled with poppies and the song of the skylark to the gods of Mammon.