Giving nature a home in Isles for 50 years

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Balranald Nature Reserve in North Uist is celebrating its 50th anniversary and RSPB Scotland’s Stuart Taylor explains its importance.

Balranald is a remarkable nature reserve. It is remarkable not only for its wealth of wildlife but also for its history.

Since 1966 RSPB Scotland has had an involvement with the area known as Balranald, but the story of Balranald is a different story to that of many other reserves around Britain.

Visitors are sometimes surprised to learn that the RSPB owns no land at Balranald. In fact, we are there courtesy of the crofters and local landlords.

Balranald is a wonderful example of partners coming together to achieve a common vision: the maintenance of traditional crofting practices with the happy outcome of a land rich in wildlife and natural beauty.

Back in the 1960s the RSPB recognised that Balranald was a special place. And the Society felt that it would be a good place to monitor some of the rarer local breeding species such as corncrakes.

In the early years, a summer warden would be present and their job was to spend a few months each spring and summer counting birds!

However, over time, we came to realise how important the machair habitat of the Western Isles was and Balranald became the focus of an intense period of research.

Our objective was to gain a better understanding of how we could work with crofters to ensure a future for the very many special species that depend on the machair such as the corncrake and breeding waders. Indeed, Balranald was the place where we learnt how to save the corncrake.

Meanwhile, more and more visitors were discovering the islands and their wildlife.

As a result the RSPB came to employ both full and part-time staff as the job increased dramatically from counting birds, to leading guided walks, conducting research and advising crofters on how to enter agri-environmental schemes.

Balranald gradually became the important visitor attraction that it is today and has introduced many people over the years to the wonders of the machair of the Western Isles.

Have things changed in the last fifty years? Well, crofting, like farming across the UK, has changed.

Modern machinery is now used to maintain the traditional low-input crofting system.

We also now have a visitor centre on the reserve which is a focal point for folk wanting to know what’s about and where to go for a walk.

However the beauty remains. And so does the wildlife. Take the corncrake: numbers at Balranald have doubled since 1966. A great achievement.

Balranald represents half-a-century of partnership between crofters, landowners and the RSPB. We look forward to the next half-century!

Pictured is the visitor centre at the nature reserve.