On the western edge of North Uist is the RSPB Reserve of Balranald. The land is managed by the organisation on behalf of the owner.
The 1600 acres reserve is typical of this sea-bordered area of North Uist. It has two beautiful bays with white beaches overlooked by high dunes which are held in place with marram grass.
Sheltered by the high dunes is the area known as Machair which is famous for its displays of wild flowers in spring and summer.
Further inland one enters the world of peat bogs, acid, infertile soils and many lochs and lochans.
The Machair is a mile-wide fertile zone of the Hebrides that stretches along its west coast. At Balranard as in much of the Western Isles the sand overlying the peat offsets its acidity with the alkalinity of the powdered shells of which it is composed.
The crofters fertilised it with seaweed, cultivated it with light ploughs, and grew a succession of crops.
The hay was cut late in the autumn which gave the ground-nesting birds like the corncrake the opportunity to raise their chicks before the hay was cut.
The RSPB encourages crofters to cultivate the Machair and gives them a subsidy to follow traditional crofting practises in order to protect the bird life.
This traditional cultivation actually promotes the wild flowers when the land is left fallow or used for hay in the rotation cycle. When we visited Balranald in late May at least half the Machair seemed to be fallow and was covered with wild flowers.
They were all close to the ground; there were thousands of tiny yellow pansies, pink and white daisies, yellow crow’s foot and buttercups.
We travelled to North Uist by ferry from Leverburgh in southwest Harris to Borgh on the island of Berneray.
From there we drove to North Uist and took the west branch of the A865 that serves the western seaboard of North Uist. The nature reserve is well signposted but there is limited parking at the Visitor Centre and outside the caravan park a short distance further on.
From there a track leads through the Machair; the sight of the carpet of wild flowers took our breath away. It then passes through the sand dunes to a beautiful bay.
There we saw all-white Glacous gulls, sanderlings, eider ducks and oyster catchers. You can then follow a path west around the bay before turning inland to rejoin a track back to the Visitor Centre.
On returning through the Machair we were fortunate to see a corncrake trotting through the flowers.
They are usually incredibly difficult to spot but this one could not have been easier – he was practically at our feet as we meandered along.
There are about 25 pairs nesting there so chances of seeing one are good. We also saw the rare corn bunting.
More corncrakes could be heard at the visitor centre. The walk is a gentle three mile stroll around the reserve and well worth it.