Just an expanse of bare rock? Take another look at the Burren

The iconic Clare landscape is an example of biodiversity emerging from historic farming

Seen close up, this inhospitable-looking ecosystem hosts exceptionally rich communities of both alpine and Mediterranean plants, a combination unique in the world. Photograph: Getty Images

The Burren is a landscape, or rather a patchwork of landscapes, full of paradoxes.

The natural system that slowly evolved there following the last retreat of the glaciers was largely dominated by hazel woodland.

But humans began to change this landscape from the late Stone Age onwards. And, in the Bronze Age, our distant ancestors cleared great swathes of hazel for relatively intensive farming. Overgrazing, along with changing climate, led to the loss not only of vegetation cover, but of the soil itself across the uplands.

This created the broad-stroke image of the Burren we still have today. We see a bare moonscape of limestone hills from a distance. Seen close up, however, this inhospitable-looking ecosystem hosts exceptionally rich communities of both alpine and Mediterranean plants, a combination unique in the world.


So you could say that the Burren embodies an oddly contradictory environmental parable: landscape degradation by our species in one historical period has leading to flourishing biodiversity in another. What should we do, then, when contemporary farmers begin to abandon these uplands, no longer economical in conventional market terms for grazing today, and the native hazel starts to come back?


That’s natural regeneration, right? Isn’t that generally considered a Good Thing by environmentalists? Well, yes it is, but in this case it is shading out (or at least obscuring from our view) all of those gentians, avens and orchids, all those saxifrages, ferns and mosses that we love to see garlanding the Burren every spring and summer.

The approach taken by the Burren Programme (burrenprogramme.com), now a world-class catalyst for farming-for-conservation schemes, has been to treat the Burren as a “cultural landscape” or “socio-ecosystem”. That is, the traditional agricultural impacts on the landscape are recognised as having produced important biodiversity benefits.

Agricultural policy has been restructured locally to reward farmers who continue grazing, maintaining their uplands clear of hazel scrub. It’s an interesting example of the creation of a “second market” for these farmers, who now describe themselves as “producing biodiversity”, alongside food production.

But there are still tricky ecological questions involved. Brendan Dunford is the agricultural adviser who set up the programme in consultation with local farmers. He led a group of us onto Oliver Nagle's farm and discussed some of the questions on site, as part of Burrenbeo’'s recent Learning Landscapes symposium .

While the Burren Programme has been widely praised, certain commentators have questioned the use of herbicide by some farmers to prevent hazel regrowth after clearing. Dunford said that the additional labour burden on farmers by forbidding such treatment would be “absolutely unrealistic” for most of them. He stressed that herbicide had to be applied very carefully and selectively within the scheme; misuse incurs farm payment reductions.

Rich grassland

He also clarified a point often missed: the clearances are never aimed at mature hazel forests, but only where hazel scrub is advancing back over previously grazed open, florally rich grassland. Furthermore, any participant farmer who did remove established hazel woods would be penalised. The point is not to eliminate hazel from the Burren, but to ensure that diverse habitats continue to flourish there.

What's remarkable about this woodland, to anyone who has tried to struggle through Burren hazel scrub, is that it is easy to hike across

We saw a fine example of just such a mature forest the next day, just over the ridge from the Nagle farm in the Slieve Carran nature reserve. This woodland is most famous as the site of St Colman’s oratory. Legend has it that the saint received a sumptuous banquet right here in the wood, miraculously transported by air from Dunguaire castle in Kinvara. It’s certainly a place with a magical atmosphere. It’s especially worth visiting in spring, when the understory is itself a banquet of wild garlic, celandine and wood anemones.

What’s remarkable about this woodland, to anyone who has tried to struggle through Burren hazel scrub, is that it is easy to hike across. In fact, it’s quite open to sunlight – hence the floral understory – as the trees are spaced apart. Whether this is due to natural thinning as weaker trees died off, or to human management, is not clear.

As Dunford pointed out, if you poke about a bit in the undergrowth, you’ll soon find traces of human habitation. Like all old Irish woodlands, culture is closely entangled with nature here.

Initially, it’s a surprise to find even one woodland big enough to lose yourself in, here at the heart of the “open” Burren. But there are quite a few such mini-landscapes folded into the limestone. There’s Dromore wood, an old estate forest once managed commercially, in the midst of the Burren National Park.

Aspen quivering

And at the top of the Glen of Clab, you may find yourself surprised again, by a tall stand of aspen quivering with every whisper of breeze.

Another workshop at the Burrenbeo symposium led us to a very different but equally remarkable woodland. Purists might say that Garryland wood is on the margins of the Burren proper. But it’s still on limestone, and it holds remarkable examples of that signature Burren feature, the turlough, those lakes that come and go as hidden aquifers dictate. One of them had expanded dramatically, right across a forest road, forcing us to take a lovely diversion off trail.

Teachers find that children who may be very withdrawn or tense at school open up and blossom in the woods

Garryland is mainly ash, hazel and oak woodland, and linked to Coole park. There is some elm here too, and yew, and shrubs like spindle and buckthorn. Our guide is Ray Foley, of An Taisce’s Leaf programme, which aims to reconnect children with our forests as part of the Green Schools’ biodiversity programme.

This programme is currently operating only in Limerick, on a pilot project basis, where he uses the ecologically similar Curragh Chase forest for school excursions. Foley is a well-informed, entertaining and engaging educator. He talks about how teachers find that children who may be very withdrawn or tense at school open up and blossom in the woods.

Later he sends me a video of teacher “reviews” of Leaf (see below). Hopefully it will be seen by those with their hands on the educational purse-strings, because this programme, currently dependent on the generosity of private philanthropy (the JS Greene Memorial Foundation), surely merits expansion across the country.

Field notes: Teachers comment on the Leaf programme

"Some were a bit apprehensive about going to the woods: 'It's not a cool place to go.' But they really loved it. They learned about how species are interconnected in the forest, it's really interesting for them. And they really connected what is going on in the world with what they experienced in the forest. They link that to what they can do to help the environment. Children can see pictures of nature, they can see YouTube clips of nature, but there is nothing as good as getting them out into the open, getting hands-on experience." – Carmel McGrath, Caherdavin Girls School

"I couldn't get over it, just to see their faces, they remember so many things about it. When they saw a red squirrel, how much they talked about it. Our kids are from all backgrounds in Limerick – some have experienced nothing outside the city, outside their own apartment, even. I can't recommend it enough." – Mark Culbert, Presentation Primary School

"We've given each class an assigned tree and we'll study that tree over the course of a year. We want it to become part of the regular activities in the school." – Yvonne Briody, Limerick Educate Together

"Each child got to plant a tree [in the Tiny Forest project], and even the children you would least expect were highly motivated. I think it was probably the most enjoyable day for them last year." – Paula Howard, Limerick Educate Together