Farmers in the Burren have for thousands of years marked the end of summer by herding their cattle onto ‘winterage’ pastures in the limestone uplands. The tradition is synonymous with the Burren and is key to the survival of the region’s famous flora and fauna.
Brendan Dunford of the Burrenbeo Trust said the practice of winterage is not only unique and intriguing, it is a big part of the reason why there are so many monuments, flowers, and stories in the Burren today.
“Witnessing the cattle browsing on the herb-rich winterage pastures, drinking from the calcium-rich springs or enjoying the ‘dry-lie’ of the limestone captures the very essence of this ‘fertile rock’,” said Dr Dunford.
That tradition was the inspiration of a Wintertage Weekend which took place in various locations across the Burren over the past three days.
It celebrated not only the unique farming traditions of the Burren, but also highlighted, celebrated, and supported the broader significance of pastoral farming in shaping much of the Irish landscape.
This vibrant and culturally rich community festival was co-ordinated by the Burrenbeo Trust and backed by local businesses, giving time and venues, and the general public.
Today, roughly 1,000 farm families live and work in the Burren region. Many of them continue to follow the pastoral traditions of their ancestors, in particular the outwintering of cattle on the rough limestone grasslands.
In doing this, they continue to produce exceptionally good, healthy free range livestock which are in great demand from buyers across Ireland and beyond.
But these traditions also have a wider relevance: Winter grazing systems have been scientifically proven to be critical to the survival of the Burren’s flowers and fauna.
New programmes assess the environmental health of these species-rich grasslands and reward farmers accordingly.
They also support the restoration of field walls and shelter walls, the protection of the Burren’s freshwater springs and streams and improvement of access to grasslands by removing invasive scrub.
These works and the continuation of age-old grazing systems in turn create a better environment for locals and visitors to enjoy. They support a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and contribute greatly to the Burren’s image as Ireland ’s learning landscape.
Ahead of the winterage weekend, there was further good news for the Burren from Agriculture, Food, and Marine Minister Simon Coveney.
He unveiled plans for a new agri-environment scheme for the region to come into operation from next year. It will offer new five-year contracts to conservation-conscious farmers in the region.
“These new schemes are designed to complement the more broadly-based Glas and Glas+ measures and will be aimed at supporting local solutions to specific environmental problems,” said Mr Coveney.
“With GLAS now bedding-down, I am determined to move this process forward as quickly as possible.
“The locally-led approach offers a novel and innovative way of involving local communities and brings a new and exciting element to bear on agri-environment schemes.”
Mr Coveney said the scheme being introduced under a proposed locally led measure of the Rural Develoment Plan will focus specifically on the conservation of the unique farming landscape of the Burren in counties Clare and Galway.
Negotiations with the European Commission for the introduction of this scheme are well advanced and the intention is to have it operating for 2016.
It will build on the success of similar schemes piloted under Burren Life Project (2005-2010) and the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme (2011-2015).
Principles evolving out of those schemes are central to how the new scheme goes about meeting its objectives of conserving the unique heritage, environment and communities of the Burren, he said.
Overall, it has been a memorable year for the Burren. Britian’s Prince Charles fulfilled a long held ambition when he visited the area in May.
He is a long-standing champion of sustainable agriculture, a supporter of the rural way of life, and a consistent defender of the countryside and its environment.
Charles found find much to appreciate in the Burren, where he met with farmers and was presented with a hamper of local food products by his hosts.
Burrenbeo Trust, the Irish Farmers Association, Teagasc, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, with Government and EU support, have been working for years towards developing a new model for sustainable agriculture in the limestone region.
Earlier this month, the Burren was chosen the winner of Foodie Towns 2015 by the Restaurants Association of Ireland following town visits and nearly 9,000 online votes.
Aoife Carrigy, chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers Guild, said it was encouraging to see the high standard of applications for this year’s competition.
To reach the Top 10 alone was a real achievement for each of these destinations, given the competitive calibre.
“But what made the Burren stand out as exemplary was the comprehensiveness of their food offering from field, or in their case, fertile rock, through to fork. Food-loving tourists to the Burren are in for an intriguing treat,” she said.
A delighted Tina O’Dwyer, Burren Food Trail, said the Burren in its entirety has never told its food story, but that has really come to fruition this year.
Sinead Hennessy of Food Tourism Ireland said the Burren’s strong collaborative food network and ethos of joined up thinking ensures that its unique food story is delivered to every visitor on the ground.
“The award is sure to further boost the region’s profile as an outstanding food destination,” she said.
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