The Burren is renowned for its unique and illustrious agricultural traditions
The fascinating cultural and natural heritage that attracts so many to the Burren is a legacy of agricultural traditions. Furthermore, the future security of this wonderful legacy very much depends on 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, with hardy native breeds of beef cattle used instead to graze upland grasslands between the months of October and April. The ecological significance of this tradition is immense: wintering animals remove all the dominant herbs and grasses that would otherwise inhibit herb growth and limit plant species diversity, without damaging these plants during their flowering season. The cultural legacy of this ancient practice is apparent in the numerous tombs, ring forts and tower houses found in the upland pastures.
As farming becomes ever more intensified and specialised and we move away from traditional methods, some worrying implications are unfolding – as increasing ‘marginalisation’ of upland grasslands, often manifests itself in the form of hazel-scrub encroachment. These changes are threatening the formerly quite balanced and harmonious relationship between agriculture and the natural environment in the Burren, and will have enormous implications for the future ecological and cultural development of the area.
Addressing a need for change
Seeing a need for change, the BurrenLife Farming for Conservation Programme was born. The overall objective of this project was to develop a new model for sustainable agriculture in the Burren in order to conserve the habitats designated under the European Habitats Directive. To achieve this a hugely successful programme, with a range of Project Actions, was developed including:
- Implementing best-known management practices on 2,000ha of the Burren, including new feeding systems, redeployment of existing livestock and targeted scrub removal.
- Increasing understanding of the relationship between land management practices and the natural heritage of the Burren.
- Developing new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of the Burren habitats.
- Enhancing awareness and skills relating to the heritage of the Burren and its management through a range of practical initiatives aimed at empowering local communities.
- Disseminating information relating to the agricultural management of areas of high nature and cultural conservation value through literature and the media.
This initiative has been running since 2008 and has had a significant impact on the biodiversity of the region, most impressive though, is the fact that it highlights the knowledge of the local farmers, instigating them as the lead experts on farming conservation practices, giving them the opportunity to be rewarded also for their hard work. For more information on this project, see www.burrenlife.com
Each year, Burrenbeo Trust with the assistance of the local farming community, coordinate the Burren Winterage Weekend during the October bank holiday weekend. This is a fantastic festival which highlights and celebrates the local community, while also showcasing the magnificent knowledge, culture and farming traditions at the core of this wonderful landscape. Through a ‘Winterage School’ conference, bearing witness to experts from all across the globe on conservation farming practices, to a huge variety of walks, talks and events to attend – this weekend is something really special. Capping all of this off, attendees have the opportunity to join a local farmer as they herd their cattle up the hills for winter on a beautifully scenic walk in the Burren. See www.burrenwinterage.com.
Some fantastic FACTS about agriculture in the Burren:
- 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.
- Agriculture, in the form of winter grazing, is in fact a key contributory factor to the high floral diversity of the various grassland communities of the Burren uplands.
- With the advent of diminished levels of winter grazing, or the replacement of the winter grazing regime by a more common summer-based system, the species richness and character of the Burren flora are severely affected.
- Threats to the landscape include: ‘intensification’ – involving extensive reclamation, increased use of chemical fertilisers and slurry, the construction of slatted housing units, the massive increase in silage production, and increases in the amount of stock held.
Other changes would be categorised under ‘specialisation’: traditionally the Burren would have supported small, labour-intensive mixed farming systems. Today this has evolved into a highly mechanised and specialised system involving the more lucrative production of continental weanlings (young calves) from suckler (non-dairy) cows for the export market.