Balranald Nature Reserve is set for a new record number of visitors this year. Established 50 years ago between RSPB Scotland and local crofters and landlords the reserve has become one of the most popular tourist locations in the Western Isles. Initially set up by the RSPB to monitor the incredible wildlife of the area, it has grown into a major birdwatching destination.
In 2004 visitor numbers were just over 9,000, which were estimated to bring £1.38 million into the local economy. This year, present visitor numbers are indicating that the reserve will have attracted more than 15,000 people. The 2004 figures from Balranald 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 bring demand for improved visitor facilities. RSPB Scotland upgraded the small visitor centre and car park at Balranald in 1996 with help from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Western Isles Council. The visitor centre is standing up well to the increasing numbers but the car park is sometimes struggling to cope.
Jamie Boyle the RSPB site manager for Balranald says, "Increasing numbers of visitors are great news for the island but we do need to be careful. The bird breeding season is a popular time to visit but 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 over 700 people in 2015. These walks provide the chance to see birds and plants of the machair and croftlands.
The 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 in the Uists. The recent presence of a Gyr Falcon and a Black-billed Cuckoo proved particularly lucrative for camp sites and other accommodation providers on the islands.
However the future rests with young people and it is very encouraging that people of all ages attend the walks during the season, families with children particularly prominent. We very much hope and expect that RSPB 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 wonderful islands.
Stuart Taylor - RSPB Scotland Uist Warden.