From the flowers of the field

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

Cereal field on BernerayThe 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.

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8 thoughts on “From the flowers of the field

  1. Hi Chris and Christine, how beautiful it all looks today for you both. I remember looking out of your kitchen window a few weeks ago and being blown away by not only the mahair but the stunning view. Can I have permission to write about my trip to see you both for our church magazine, where I write a regular monthly article? Best wishes Maggie.

    • Hi Maggie, it was a great pleasure to meet you and Chrissie plus spouses. I think autumn arrived today, brent geese moving south and a damp chill to the air.
      Please feel free to write our lovely islands and the strange people who live here. You also have permission to use any of the photographs.

  2. To lose such a unique environment would be a dreadful thing.
    There was a field near us when we moved down here that used to be full of traditional hay stooks. Now it is full of solar panels.

    • Alas all we can do is try and hope that enough people will care sufficiently about their culture and way of life to want to help preserve it.
      It is an awful dilemma – to be green and save the planet we need to use alternative energy but how do we reconcile this with covering our land with solar plaels and wind turbines?

  3. Thank you for a thought provoking post. I completely agree that if we lose our traditional methods of farming so much is lost. Here in the southern states of Australia, many of the dairy farmers have been priced out of the market.. (big Supermarket chains cutting the cost of milk) and now a big overseas company owns an enormous dairy farm in Victoria, where the animals are never taken out of the sheds….in the land of sunshine and space… very sad indeed.

    • Unfortunately things are not much different here, the supermarkets and corporate agri-business and food processors have the power to manipulate the market. We can save our traditional farms but the consumer has to be willing to pay the price, and it seems that most of them don’t care.

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