The Natural Environment
The Outer Hebrides of Scotland has some of the most diverse landscapes in Europe and has been recognised internationally for its importance. For such a compact geographical area, the range of habitat types is huge, which means there is also a massive diversity of flora and fauna.
As one of the last great wilderness regions in the UK, the Hebrides is an important region for conservation and includes in its honours a World Heritage Site, 53 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, three National Scenic Areas, four National Nature Reserves and many other designations.
The unique beauty of the Hebrides lies in their diversity. This section of the Wildlife Hebrides gives you an overview of the main types of habitats that you can find in Hebrides today. Click on the habitats menu to the right for more information...
Hebridean seascapes are some of the most beautiful in the world, and just by looking at the changing colours of the sea, you can see that it is full of life.
The waters around our shores are crystal clear and when they wash onto the white sands of the west coast, they have a beautiful Caribbean blue and turquoise colour.
There are incredibly consistent swells hitting our shores from the Atlantic, which produce great surf and spectacular rollers, which crash onto cliffs and rocks.
The Minch is one of the most productive marine areas in the United Kingdom and has been awarded a four star rating for whale watching by the BBC Wildlife Magazine.
The marine life around these islands is incredible: Dolphins, Seals, Sharks and Whales, hunt alongside fishermen from all over the world for the plentiful bounty of fish, squid and shellfish around the Hebrides.
10% of the European population of Scottish Common seals live in the sea lochs of the Outer Hebrides: they can be seen sunning themselves on rocks and beaches all around the islands.
With its clean, clear waters, the Hebrides is famous for wild Atlantic salmon and fresh shellfish, which is exported all over the world.
We have some of the deepest kelp forests in Britain in our islands, which is home to an amazing array of wildlife.
There are two types of startlingly different coastal scenery in the Hebrides. On the west coast in particular, the slope from the land is very gentle which makes for shallow bays and offshore Islands.
Many of these bays are filled with fine, white sand, produced by the relentless action of the Atlantic waves. The sand on these beaches has a very high seashell content, the highest in Scotland, which explains the spectacular white colour.
In other parts there are miles of steep cliffs and the sea floor drops away sharply to give very deep water close to shore. Here we get our fjordic inlets and see the highest sea cliffs in the UK.
A major geological event, the sinking of the sea floor, was what helped to form the Minch. From the air in particular, you get the impression that the Hebrides is a drowned landscape, and the islands are in fact the tops of hills, flooded by the meltwaters from the last ice age.
Wildlife and birdlife along the coastline is just as diverse and fascinating: the Minch has the densest population of Otters in North West Europe and they can often be seen swimming amongst the seaweed and scrambling over the rocks.
Machair is a Gaelic word that describes an extensive low-lying fertile plain. Almost half of all Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides and it is one of the rarest habitat types in Europe.
"Machair" is so important in ecological and conservational terms, that it has now become a recognised scientific term. Different authorities give the term different definitions: a type of sand dune pasture that is subject to local cultivation and has developed in wet and windy conditions; or the whole system, from the beach to where the sand encroaches onto peat further inland.
The machair land is home to rare carpet flowers, such as Irish Lady's Tresses, Orchids, and Yellow Rattle. The Hebridean machair is also the last stronghold of the Corncrake. Twite, Dunlin, Redshank and Ringed Plover also thrive on the machair lands: there are over 17,000 pairs of waders breeding on the Uist and Barra machair alone - the most numerous being the Pewit or Lapwing.
Machair sand has high shell content, sometimes 80 or 90%, and is found only in the north west of Britain and Ireland. In the Hebrides, it is found mainly down the west coast and is most prominent in the Uists, Barra and South Harris.
William MacGillivray, the famous ornithologist, gave this poetic description that paints a picture of the machair formation (1830):
"..the fragments of the shells of molluscous. are rolled by the waves towards the shore, where they are further broken down..The wind then blows them beyond the watermark, where, in the presence of time, hillocks are formed. These hillocks are occasionally broken by the winds and blown inland, covering the fields and pastures..."
Marram grass solidifies these mobile sands and encourages soil growth further back in the dune system.
However, the threat of erosion is greater than ever with rising sea levels, increased levels of Atlantic storms and recreational beach use. Scottish Natural Heritage is working to ensure that a fair balance is kept between low intensity land use and recreation on our machair lands. Please help us to protect our machair systems when you visit by parking away from the dunes and avoiding their faces.
There are over 6000 fresh water and sea lochs throughout the Hebrides and any bird's eye view will show you that the Hebrides is actually mostly made up of water.
Some of the lochs on the fertile sandy coasts are rich in nutrients that feed a great range of aquatic life, making Hebridean lochs world famous for fishing: rich in stocks of Brown and Sea Trout, Salmon and Charr.
While other peatland lochs are dark and acidic, the characteristic Hebridean loch is a mixture of both salt and fresh water ("brakish" water.)
The flora and fauna that survives around these brackish waters add yet another dimension to the range of botanical interest which can be found in the Hebrides.
Much of the islands in the Hebrides are covered by peat, a dark and fibrous soil made from dead plant matter. It usually forms a smooth skin over undulating hills and rocks and occurs in deep deposits in wetter hollows and rock basins.
Lewis has one of the biggest areas of uninterrupted blanket bog in Britain. Blanket bog has a unique drainage system with areas of small, shallow pools interspersed with drier hummocks of vegetation. When rainfall exceeds the loss of water through drainage, the soil becomes waterlogged. High acidity levels means that bacteria is unable to rot dead vegetation.
Many plants and animals, however, have adapted to live in this environment. There are peatland flowers like Cotton Grass, the insect eating Sundew, Bog Asphodel, Deer Grass and Bogbean as well as the more usual Cross Leaved Heath, Mosses and Sedges.
Heather rules this landscape and there are beautiful displays of purple, pink and blue heather carpeting the moors in late summer.
Peat has also served as a lifeline for the Hebrideans through the centuries. Peat cutting takes place in spring, usually the beginning of May, to maximise drying with the summer weather ahead.
Once dried, the peat is gathered and taken home where it gives off a wonderful aroma when burned. Taking the peats home to build into a stack is almost a social occasion. Although the practice is dying out in favour of the more convenient coal fuel, you can still see and take part in peat cutting in the spring. In North Uist, the Countryside Ranger offers a peat cutting walk, where you are taken out to a peat bank and told stories about how the crofters gathered together to cut the peat, while also learning about the fascinating wildlife, flora and fauna that survives there.
The Hebrides is formed on the oldest exposed rock in the world, Lewisian Gneiss. Gneiss is mainly a grey coloured rock with coarse bands of white and dark minerals squeezed into alignment by the pressures of the earth movements.
These twisted and contorted metamorphic rocks were formed over 3000 million years ago, when a local ice cap sculpted the sharp mountains and U shaped valleys of Harris and the upland parts of Lewis and Uist.
In Harris the underlying rock has been exposed in many places and is scattered with erratic boulders, forming a lunar landscape, which is often referred to as 'Moonscape'.
The highest peak in the Hebrides is the Clisham at 799m in the Harris Hills: it offers a spectacular view over the whole of the island chain and across to St Kilda on a clear day.
The Hebridean hills are home to plentiful Grouse, Golden Eagles, Red Deer, Rabbits and the Hebridean Black Faced Sheep.
There are hundreds of offshore islands in the Hebridean chain; many were inhabited at one time but have been deserted over the last two centuries, leaving behind empty villages and crofts. Some, though, are still thriving, now linked by causeways and bridges to the mainland islands.
Further offshore, the uninhabited isles form some of the most important sea bird breeding stations in North West Europe.
Their isolation and geography combine to form the perfect destination for many mating species.
Key breeding colonies are located on the Shiants, Handa, Priest Island, Flannan Isles, the Monachs, Mingulay, Berneray (south of Mingulay), Rona and Sula Sgeir.
St Kilda has the highest sea cliffs in the UK and is home to the largest colony of Guillemots in the world and the biggest colony of Puffins in Britain, with over one million birds in total.
Many outlying islands have seal colonies, such as Shillay and the Monachs, but access is denied during mating season as they can get very territorial!
As well as being wildlife havens, these offshore islands, offer total solitude and escape from the modern world. Taransay in the Sound of Harris is a great example: it was made famous by the BBC's Castaway 2000 series and although uninhabited, it has a converted holiday home available to visitors, the perfect place for a retreat from the pressures of modern life!