IT is no surprise that the Prince of Wales, accompanied by his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, should visit the Burren in Co Clare, as part of their four-day official visit to Ireland, which begins tomorrow.
Prince Charles 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.
He will, therefore, find much to appreciate in the Burren, one of the most important landscapes in Europe with a wealth of natural and cultural heritage.
Burrenbeo Trust, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Teagasc and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), with Government and European Union support, have been working for years towards developing a new model for sustainable agriculture in the limestone region.
Most of its 250 sq km is designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the European Union Habitats Directive. It contain a variety of habitats, including limestone pavements, grasslands, limestone heaths and hazel scrub.
The 1,500 hectare Burren National Park contains examples of all the major habitats within the region, while monuments testify that the region has a history of human habitation stretching back nearly 6,000 years.
Prior to the introduction of agriculture by Neolithic people, woodland was widespread over the area, but ongoing human occupation gave rise to open vegetation.
Traditional grazing helps to maintain the rich flora. As might be expected in a national park, the Burren also contains many species of animals, as well as bats, hares, foxes, pygmy shrews, stoats and pine martens.
It is also home to a herd of feral goats. Eighty-four species of birds have been recorded here. Peregrine falcons and hen harriers are regular visitors, but the raven is the more commonly sighted.
The Burren is probably most famous for its flowers, now in spectacular bloom. Three-quarters of all of Ireland’s native flowers are found here, including most of the Irish orchid species. In turn, these flowers support a large number of insects, such as butterflies and moths.
Most of what is valued in the Burren has been shaped by the elements and by thousands of years of farming activity, something that is of special interest to Prince Charles.
Last year, he explained in the British publication, Country Life Magazine, that the rich, natural tapestry that is the countryside does not just happen by itself.
It is the product of many generations of human activity, working in harmony with the natural world. But that delicately woven tapestry is facing unprecedented challenges, the prince warned.
He went on: “Start pulling out the threads and the rest unravels very rapidly indeed, and is very difficult to put back again — no farmers, no beautiful landscapes with hedgerows and stone walls; no thriving rural communities, no villages — or village pubs; no local markets, no distinctive local foods.
“Somehow, we need to find a way to put a value on our countryside, with all its facets. It isn’t an easy process, because we all tend to value different things, but also because so many features of our countryside have an intrinsic value that goes far beyond the realm of economics.
“How much should we bid for the haunting cry of a curlew or a green plover; a moss covered stone wall, an ancient hedgerow or the scent of a newly-mown, flower-rich hay meadow?
“At a larger scale, how much for heather on the moors, a meandering stream or a beech wood in Spring? And we might add country pubs and rural post offices to this list too.”
Prince Charles wrote that he could not see a viable future for the countryside that does not have the farmer, a vital element as food producer, at the front and centre of the picture.
He warned that the challenges to be faced are only going to become more intense as the world struggles to feed a growing population while, at the same time, accelerating climate change makes that all the more difficult — unless farming systems become more resilient.
“As far as I am concerned, it would not only be a folly to lose agricultural land, it would be equally foolish to use it in ways that are not environmentally sustainable in the long-term.”
Prince Charles, whose gardens and farm at Highgrove are managed to the organic and sustainable principles that he champions, launched a Countryside Fund in 2010 to help create and sustain a thriving rural community in Britain.
It has supported some 120 projects ranging from apprentice hill farmer schemes and community shops to school farms, rural businesses and training and education programmes involving more than 100,000 people in total.
The official British announcement of this week’s Royal visit to Ireland noted that the Burren is famous for its wild and rocky terrain, rare plant life, biodiversity and archaeology. That will be of particular interest to the Prince.
But there is another aspect that should add greatly to his expectations. During a visit to the Irish Embassy in London in 2010, he said he always comes back with his spirits raised from having met Irish people.
“I don’t know what it is. It is very special and I’m not just saying that, I mean it,” he said.
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