Safeguarding the Burren’s heritage

THE Burren is widely regarded as one of Europe’s most outstanding and distinctive landscapes, with a rich plant life and a cultural heritage stretching back 6,000 years.

But, its environment has also been identified as one of the world’s most endangered.

To say the Burren is a fragile landscape urgently in need of protection and care — especially given the enormous changes in land use there over the past three decades — is an understatement.

However, action is being taken to conserve this unique area and draw together all the people and organisations, who are currently operating independently, into a single unified force. The Burrenbeo Trust was launched in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, on December 5 by Professor David Bellamy, to safeguard what trust co-founder Dr Brendan Dunford described as the unique heritage of the area.

Efforts to conserve the Burren have been boosted with a host of prominent people becoming patrons for the trust, including Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, former chair of the Arts Council Olive Braiden, Concern chief executive Tom Arnold, artist Ann Madden Le Brocquy, poet Michael Longley and the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh.

Dr Dunford said: “There is an urgent need for a strategic approach to the management of the Burren. We must protect its heritage, which is a special resource for the local communities, but is also viewed as Ireland’s national treasure.” Now is a defining moment for the Burren, he said. Decisions made consciously or by default will determine whether it is managed and developed for the benefit of all or squandered.

“The Burren is geographically, geologically, archaeologically, ecologically and culturally unique. Its needs are equally unique. Yet, it continues to be managed on a piecemeal inter-agency basis, with limited recognition of its unique character and needs.”

Different agencies share responsibility for various aspects of the Burren, but they often overlap and their activities are co-ordinated only to a very limited extent, he said. The agencies include the National Parks and Wildlife Service, National Monuments Service, Shannon Development and Fáilte Ireland. But there’s no reason why they can’t be welded together, with benefits for the Burren and its communities. Such structures have been successfully adopted elsewhere in the country, and in the Yorkshire Dales, England, and Cairngorms, Scotland.

The Burren is seen as a fragile resource, but it has the potential to yield a rich harvest of economic, recreational and educational benefits. A combined approach to the management of the Burren’s heritage is a logical first step in this process, in Dr Dunford’s view.

Its landscape has been shaped over many millennia by a range of forces, natural and cultural. The result is a wide variety of unique but interdependent habitats that combine to give the region its distinctive character. Much of the landscape is legally protected under the EU Habitats Directive.

However, human activity, scrub encroachment and climate change continue to shape the landscape. Given the complexity of this landscape and the wide range of forces that are impinging upon it, effective rather than piecemeal management is called for.

“This is essential if the Burren, one of Ireland’s flagship landscapes and a premier heritage and tourism resource, is to survive and prosper,” Dr Dunford said.

The Burren has been described by mapmaker Tim Robinson as “one vast memorial to bygone cultures” and a repository of human habitation over millennia.

It also has more than 70% of our native plant species and boasts one of the rarest floral compositions in the world, with alpine, Artic and Mediterranean species making it an area of great national and international importance. However, planned action is needed to tackle threats to plant life, according to Dr Dunford.

Traditional farming methods are in steep decline in the Burren, something that’s having profound effects on the landscape, heritage and communities of the region.

The BurrenLIFE project is working to develop a blueprint for “farming for conservation” in the Burren. With real resources and proper management, Dr Dunford sees an opportunity to prevent agriculture going into terminal decline and to sustain farming traditions that have survived for thousands of years.

The Burren has been flagged as Ireland’s ideal eco-tourism destination. However, tourism in the region is poorly managed and its effects are often negative: there is congestion and damage to heritage sites, for instance.

In the summer, this writer was surprised to see a state employee on security duty at a well-known dolmen. He was there, apparently, to ensure visitors did not remove stones, jump up on the monument to have photographs taken or simply engage in horseplay.

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