Reaping rewards for crofting and wildlife

Reaper Binder in use on the machair (Credit: Martin Scott/RSPB)

Reaper Binder in use on the machair (Credit: Martin Scott/RSPB)

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Crofters in the Western Isles have been introduced to a modern adaptation of a traditional way of managing their crops which should help wildlife as well as supporting the crofting way of life.

The Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project has been piloting the use of a new piece of equipment - a reaper binder - to crofters on the Uists and Barra in recent weeks.

Project Advisory Officer Julia Gallagher said: “Many of the surviving reaper binders are between 40 and 60 years old. New parts are very difficult to source and some parts of the machines – made of canvas – are difficult to maintain. And yet these machines are fundamental to the traditional crofting activities of stooking and stacking. We have therefore invested in a brand new machine which should help to keep the tradition alive in the islands.”

The stooking of corn crops on the Uists is carried out to help dry the harvested crop for feeding out to cattle over the winter months or to be threshed for seed for sowing the following spring.

The crop is harvested by a reaper binder machine, which cuts and ties the corn in small bundles called sheaves. The sheaves are then stood to dry in the field in piles of four to six called stooks before being made into larger stacks ready for the winter months.

The seed for Uists corn is endemic to the islands and is a traditional mix of small oats, rye grass and bere barley. As well as benefitting the condition of the harvested crop and maintaining the supply of local seed, the stacked corn provides vital seed over the winter months for seed-eating birds, such as the corn bunting, which is in serious decline in the Uists.

Julia added: “There are fears that the “stooking” of cereal crops could disappear as feeding corn from stacks to wintering cattle is labour intensive even though it is a very nutrient-rich form of fodder. If that happened there is a danger that it could badly affect the wildlife of the islands which attracts thousands of visitors to the islands every year.

“Hopefully bringing in new machinery, which helps to modernise the practice of cutting and binding, will make stooking more sustainable. There is a great deal of support in the islands for maintaining these distinctive practices and everyone will benefit if we can keep it going.”

Crofter Archie MacDonald said: “I was impressed by the cut of the binder, it does a really good job.  It’s a lighter machine than the traditional binders and I will be very interested to see the results of future project trials harvesting for seed crop with this machine”.  

Martin Scott, RSPB Conservation Officer for the Western Isles said: “The Uists and Barra are amazing places for wildlife. The islands are very important for seed-eating birds such as corn buntings which benefit greatly from activities such as stooking and stacking which provide a rich source of seeds. The area is also a stronghold for the corncrake, a bird that is completely dependent on traditional forms of agriculture to survive, particularly late harvesting. Providing stooking and stacking with a future gives these birds a brighter prospect of surviving for future generations to enjoy.”