The surprise expressed by many visitors to the Burren to the fact that these rugged hills are home to a long and illustrious agricultural tradition is both amusing and ironic. Many are misled perhaps by the ostensibly barren, rocky, appearance of the hills, and by the absence of livestock on them over the summer season when most people choose to visit.
Little do these visitors realise it, but the fascinating cultural and natural heritage that attracts them to the Burren is essentially a legacy of this agricultural tradition. Furthermore, the future security of this wonderful legacy very much depends on upon a continuation of these traditions.
From an agricultural perspective, the Burren uplands are primarily associated with the practice of ‘winterage’. This is an unusual adaptation of the ‘transhumance’ tradition (the seasonal moving of livestock by farmers) found in upland areas elsewhere in Europe, wherein animals are moved to the hill pastures in summertime. The cultural legacy of this ancient practice is apparent in the numerous tombs, ring forts and tower houses found in the upland pastures.
Farming activity in the Burren has been moulded by the very individual limitations and strengths of the unique landscape, as is reflected in the evolution of practices such as winterage, herding and goat husbandry, and physical features such as rainwater troughs, shelter walls, goat crós and cahers, herdsmen’s houses, and isolated cattle-loading pens.
Traditionally in the Burren, for most farmers, agriculture was a multidisciplinary activity characterised by high labour inputs. The assorted strands that characterised the mixed farm operation – dairying, beef, sheep, pigs, fowl and tillage – were usually complementary and frequently interdependent.
One striking aspect of the traditional management of the Burren is the intimate level at which even the expansive uplands were managed, with scarcely any area untouched by the hand of man, as a closer inspection of the subtle rearrangements of rocks, the rippling forms of lazy beds or the coppicing of woodland will reveal.
The relatively benign impact which agriculture traditionally had upon the surrounding environment is a reflection of the limited technology formerly available, and the cost of its deployment, as opposed to any ideological imperative. Potential threats such as those posed by scrub incursion or pests were kept closely in check, ensuring the maintenance of a state of ‘contained dynamism’ between agriculture and environment.
Traditionally, agricultural markets were more local and less discerning than they are today, particularly in terms of livestock quality, breed, and age. Agricultural policy scarcely impacted upon the local farm economy, in stark contrast to its current pre-eminence. Hence farmers were more inclined and able to manage their land and stock in accordance with its natural potential and their own judgement and experience, rather than as a response to forces external to the region.
View here the annual farming festival that celebrates the agricultural traditions of the Burren .
Click here for more information on different aspects of the Burren’s built and cultural heritage: