When descends on the Atlantic
Storm-wind of the equinox,
Landward in his wrath he scourges
The toiling surges,
Laden with seaweed from the rocks:
Seaweed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Exactly a year ago, I wrote about the kelp forests which lie offshore to the west of the Outer Hebrides and are part of the complex marine ecosystem of the shallow waters of the North Atlantic. After a winter storm large amounts of kelp and other marine algae are deposited on shores, providing food for wintering shorebirds and an invaluable supply of organic seaweed for the islands’ crofters and gardeners.
This winter has been particularly stormy with a succession of severe westerly gales throughout November, December and January. I had expected that large amounts of weed would be thrown up onto the beach, but still I was surprised by the sheer mass of tangle. At the northern end of our beach the piles of seaweed were over 2m deep and extended for 500m or more. So collecting seaweed was a job for a JCB and a convoy of tractors with large trailers.
The use of seaweed as organic fertiliser is a traditional practice but until recently it had fallen into decline as many crofters either do not have the time or equipment to enable them to make the most of this apparently ‘free’ fertiliser. The costs arise from the use of machinery and fuel for collection. However, with the rising costs of inorganic fertilisers and a demonstration of the effectiveness of seaweed on crop yields, the Machair Life+ project has encouraged a resurgence of this practice. With the end of the project insight it will be interesting to see whether the large-scale collection of seaweed which has been organised and funded by Machair Life+ will continue.
The kelp is dumped in large mountains on the edge of the machair and in April it will be spread over the cultivated strips using muck spreaders. The machair is held in common by the townships (crofting villages) and each croft has a number of strips and a souming (number and type of stock each croft can graze on a common grazings). The strips were originally allocated by lot to ensure an even distribution of good and poor land. These are cultivated on rotation: small oats and rye (for cattle feed) are grown for 2 years and then the land is left fallow for 2 years. The soil is thin and poor so the seaweed is a valuable source of organic matter and trace nutrients.
While the westerly gales persist the kelp will continue to accumulate on the beach, buts as soon as the wind changes and there is a northerly blow, it will all disappear. A testament to the power of the wind and waves. So the windows of opportunity are small and I’m expecting my ten tons of seaweed for the garden to be delivered any day now.