RSPB Scotland’s Stuart Taylor reports that visitor numbers at Balranald have soared as the North Uist nature reserve celebrates its 50th anniversary…
Established fifty years ago by RSPB Scotland, local crofters and landlords, Balranald Nature Reserve has become one of the most popular tourist locations in the Western Isles. Initially set up to monitor the incredible wildlife of the area, it has gone on to become a major bird watching destination.
Twelve years ago – in 2004 – visitor numbers were just over 9,000, and estimated to bring £1.38 million into the local economy. This year, present visitor numbers indicate the reserve will have attracted more than 15,000 people.
Figures from 2004 were calculated to support the equivalent of almost four full-time jobs, which will now have increased significantly. The experience at Balranald is reflected elsewhere with wildlife tourism growing in many parts of the world and helping to sustain remote communities.
However, increasing visitor numbers also brings demand for improved visitor facilities. RSPB Scotland upgraded the small visitor centre (pictured) and car park at Balranald in 1996 with help from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. While the visitor centre is standing up well to the increasing numbers, the car park sometimes struggles to cope.
Jamie Boyle, RSPB site manager for Balranald, says: “Increasing numbers of visitors are great news for the island but we do need to be careful. While the breeding season is a popular time to visit, it is also the time when the birds are at their most sensitive to disturbance. We need to manage the area so that people can see the wildlife but not get too close.”
In order to cater for the growing demand, RSPB Scotland staff run a programme of guided walks, which were attended by more than 700 people last year. These walks provide the chance to see birds and plants of the machair and croftlands.
News of all this wonderful wildlife is spreading further afield and several organised holiday firms now feature the Western Isles as a major destination in their brochures. Tour leaders from Speyside Wildlife, Heatherlea, Norfolk Birding and Oriole Adventures are now familiar faces as they bring their groups to the islands annually to see what they can find. Balranald is invariably a stop on the itinerary.
Also helping to attract keen birdwatchers are the regular arrival of rarities on the islands, with the recent presence of a Gyr Falcon and a Black-billed Cuckoo proving particularly lucrative for campsites and other accommodation providers.
However, the future rests with young people and it is very encouraging that people of all ages attend the walks during the season, with families with children particularly prominent. We very much hope and expect that Balranald will attract even more visitors in the next 50 years which, in turn, should help to secure the prosperity of the vitally important tourist industry in these islands.