Islay Nature, Vegetation and Habitats

Islay's high nature value
Eiderducks at Loch GruinartIslay supports many rare species and habitats, many of which are recorded in the EU Birds- and Habitats Directives. Islay is often mentioned as a 'hotspot for biodiversity' with consequent Biodiversity Action Plans made for several habitats and species. This is also reflected in the nature conservation designations applied to large parts of the island. The most typical birds and vegetation types in Islay are described in detail below. Species such as marsh-fritillary butterfly, chough, corncrake and wintering barnacle- and Greenland white-fronted geese are some of the species whose presence supports the high nature value of Islay.

Islay is famous for the enormous numbers of wintering barnacle geese and Greenland white-fronted geese. But Islay is equally important for many more bird species, resident, breeding, passaging and wintering ones. There are 175 bird species to be seen on the island, not counting the vagrant ones (Islay Natural History Trust). Out of the total 181 species on the Annex I of the EU-Birds Directive, Islay is important for 28.

Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart, both with intertidal mudflats an the latter an RSPB reserve, are important places for wintering geese, waders, divers, grebes and sea ducks. Even some of the highest densities of breeding waders in the world were counted on the so called Machairs, sandy coastal grasslands (RSPB, 1993 and 1995). The Rhinns and the Oa provide attractive habitats for birds of prey, like the golden eagle, buzzard, hen harrier, peregrine, merlin and kestrel. The cliffs have seabird colonies of command and black guillemots, razorbill, kittiwake, fulmar and shag, while choughs and rock-doves use these cliffs for nesting. Islay houses 85% of the Scottish breeding population of chough, and large proportions of the population of the rare corncrake as well.

Purple Heather
Purple heather on the Oa Peninsula

Due to its mild, oceanic climate and its diverse geology, a range of vegetation-types are found on Islay. They comprise of coastal grasslands (including Machairs), vegetated sea cliffs, dune systems, heathlands, woodlands, moorlands and blanket bogs. In addition, many of these open vegetation types are used as rough pasture and marginal hill land and the grazing of these areas delivers and important contribution to the overall ecological complexity. Together with their associated animal populations, some vegetation-types form highly valued biotopes or habitats, listed on the Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive. Three of these Annex I habitats are abundantly present on Islay, and form part of the rough grazing land. These are:

Beautiful Flowers in between the grassesNorth Atlantic Wet Heaths; Humid, peaty or semi-peaty heaths, other than blanket bogs, of the Atlantic and sub-Atlantic domains, important for cross-leaved heath

Blanket bog; Extensive bog communities or landscapes on flat or sloping ground with poor surface drainage, in oceanic climates with heavy rainfall, characteristic of western and northern Britain and Ireland. Bogs locally dominated by Sphagnum mosses. Important species like round-leaved sundew, oblong-leaved sundew, black bog-rush and white beak-sedge are found here.

European Dry Heaths; European dry heaths typically occur in freely-draining, acidic to circum-neutral soils with generally low nutrient content. Ericaceous dwarf-shrubs dominate the vegetation. The most common is heather, which often occurs in combination with gorse, bilberry or bell heather, though other dwarf-shrubs are important locally. Nearly all dry heath is semi-natural, being derived from woodland through a long history of grazing and burning. Most dry heaths are managed as extensive grazing land for livestock or, in upland areas, as grouse moors.

View from Kilchoman
View from Kilchoman towards Loch Gorm

The Rhinns of Islay are of particular importance, for example at Kilchoman (Machir Bay) fossilised dune systems with a 'machair' morphology occur. Machair is a distinctive sand dune formation formed by a particular combination of physical factors, including climate and landform. The vegetation is typical for calcareous or neutral sandy grassland. These grazed coastal dunes are of natural importance and are found nowhere else in the world but in the north and west of Scotland and western Ireland. The woodlands on the Rhinns are of significance as some of Britain's most westerly woods. The Salix aurita scrub woodland is an unusual woodland community and is rare in the District. Several uncommon higher plant species including the Irish Lady's tresses, the meadow thistle and the great fen-sedge are associated with the fens around Loch Corr. Species like buckbean, marsh arrowgrass, pale butterwort, bog asphodel, marsh cinquefoil and fairy flax can be found in fields with semi-natural vegetation, maintained through grazing.

Thanks to its climate, geographical conditions and human interference, Islay still contains a large variety of habitats and species. Each of these habitats is influenced more or less by farming and some important habitats, which form important biotopes for floristic and faunistic species, depend for their survival on extensive farming practices. Traditionally crofting was the common agricultural farm system practised on the island. In the last hundred years however a shift from arable cropping towards a larger dominance of livestock farming has occurred, although on most farms some form of mixed livestock farming with arable cropping still exists.

Lossit Bay Atlantic Coast
Lossit Bay on Islay's Atlantic West Coast

Printed with kind permission from Alterra Wageningen from the report "the case of Islay" written by Brak, Hilarides, Elbersen en van Wingerden.

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Norman Newton - Islay guide
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