A perfect day for a cattle drive: Seasonal movement benefits both land and animal
Many wonder why similar farming-for-conservation programmes are not being rolled out with as much energy across Ireland
Winter is coming: Aoife Forde drives her family’s cattle towards upland pasture, followed by participants in the Burrenbeo’s Winterage Weekend. Photograph: Martin Kiely
It’s Sunday morning in Carron village, in the heart of north Clare, on a gloriously sunny October morning. Inside a small church, DalaViolinisterna, a Swedish youth orchestra, and their local Erasmus exchange partners, Sonic Strings, are playing Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. It’s as if they are channelling the golden light outside.
This is hardly the kind of event you’d expect to kick off a cattle drive, but that’s what we are all here for. It’s typical of Burrenbeo, the landscape trust that organises the annual Burren Winterage Weekend, to bring such disparate elements together, and make them work.
After the concert, an endless queue forms for refreshments as people register for the drive. We are each given a freshly cut hazel stick to keep us steady. There’s rough, uneven ground on the long walk ahead.
The crowd also contains disparate elements, at least temporarily in harmony. There are veteran environmentalists, and leaders of farmers’ organisations; there are neighbours from farms up the road, here for a familiar annual ritual, and there are suburbanites from Dublin, in search of their roots in the soil.
The land needs the cattle to rejuvenate itself, and the cattle need the farmer for management
Michael Davoren, one of the founders of the Burren Programme, an exceptionally happy marriage of agriculture and nature conservation, starts the formal proceedings, spelling out the core ideas that drive it.
“The land needs the cattle to rejuvenate itself, and the cattle need the farmer for management. The wonderful thing about the winterage is that we as farmers want to put our cattle up on the hills to feed. The scientists want the cattle to clear off the grass so that the flora can bloom again next spring. And all of us in society just love it because we get the glorious colours of the flowers on these hills. In order for that to happen, we need the farmer.”
He introduces Aoife Forde, a 22-year-old farmer whose family herd will be moved from lowland summer pasture to the uplands today.
The seasonal movement of livestock or “transhumance”, is familiar from many parts of Europe. But the usual pattern is to drive herds down from the uplands to sheltered lowland pastures before the winter cold sets in. Forde explains why the Burren winterage reverses this pattern, but first she welcomes us, and celebrates the occasion.
“Where else in the country could you get to be a farmer for the day, and actually help a family move their cattle?” she asks, and continues: “The uplands is a great place for the cattle in winter. The limestone rock gives them a nice dry lie. And the rock absorbs the heat from the sun in summer, and slowly releases it in winter.
“You’ll see from the cattle today that when they go up to the winterage they’ll be absolutely delighted with themselves. They’ll settle down there and they are so content, anytime my Dad or Mam or I go up and walk around to check them. Let’s go and find them in the pen now, they are raring to go.”
The two young orchestras lead some 700 of us down the road to the barn where the cattle are waiting. This may be the first time a Burren herd has been despatched to the hills to the sound of music. But the next ritual has a long tradition behind it. Father Colm Clinton blesses the 21 cattle with holy water before we can finally set off.
The heifers are all in calf, but they certainly seem eager to move, at a pace that is quite demanding for many of us walkers.
The road dips at first and crosses a scattering of turloughs, glittering like a necklace on the grey limestone. Flights of mallard flee the approaching din. “You mightn’t see a single person on this road for an hour usually,” one man says. “Small wonder the duck think a crowd this size is strange.”
Conversations ramble amiably among strangers
We spread out as the road begins to rise. Conversations ramble amiably among strangers. We pick out landmarks – the Burren Perfumery peeps out from hazel woods as the valley opens out beneath us.
There are farmers here from as far away as Wicklow. They express envy at the success of the Burren scheme, with 330 farmers on 23,000 hectares, all paid decent fees for “producing biodiversity”, as Michael Davoren puts it. Many wonder why similar farming-for-conservation programmes are not being rolled out much more energetically across our country.
There are some comments on broken promises to deliver carbon grants after tree-planting, and many on the mismanagement of our roadside hedgerows and their trees by individuals and local authorities.
The view recurs that what we need is balance. Road-users must be protected from falling branches and poor visibility, but that does not justify the often brutal slash-back of healthy vegetation teeming with wildlife.
Then the cattle take a sharp turn – they know where they are going – and lead us up between stone walls on a broad green road that seems to go straight towards the sky.
A little out of breath, we reach level ground again. This is the Forde family’s winterage, 45 acres of enclosed prime upland pasture. Within minutes, the cattle have sensibly scattered away from us, to graze at ease down a slope.
They have good reason to be delighted, with views stretching across the Burren terraces from Galway Bay in the north to the Atlantic in the southwest. And a winter’s rich fodder is beneath their hooves.
And that’s where next year’s floral kaleidoscope lies invisible, waiting for the spring, and the headstart the cattle’s winter grazing will offer it.
“There’s a bit of magic here”
Aoife Forde says that one of the earliest phrases she remembers from her childhood was “stand in the gap!” to prevent cattle wandering.
“I always enjoyed that life, I always wanted to be a farmer.”
She loved science in school, and went on to spend “four wonderful years” studying agricultural science in Waterford Institute of Technology. She is now a Walsh Fellow with Teagasc and UCD, doing a Masters in agricultural innovation and support.
So does she want to be a farmer or an agricultural adviser?
Maintaining that balance, between under-grazing and over-grazing, is the aim of the programme
“Both,” she says without hesitation. “I couldn’t ever see myself not farming here. It’s a wonderful landscape. You come up here in the winter to check the cattle, and there’s no one here but yourself. You sense the culture and heritage of everyone that was here before you. There’s a bit of magic here.”
In April, she finds herself walking through carpets of early purple orchids, spring gentians, and mountain avens. “These plants are so rare elsewhere,” she says, “and here I am, falling over them.”
“The cattle clear the grass so these plants can grow,” she says. “But if I see them starting to turn the soil, I know it’s time to take them down the hill again.”
Maintaining that balance, between under-grazing and over-grazing, is the aim of the programme. I express surprise that the farmers participating seem to accept the points system applied by the programme’s science staff almost without question.
“It works brilliantly,” she says. “Everyone is on the same page, everyone knows exactly what’s required. And if you have a problem, you needn’t be afraid to tell the programme office. The door is always open, they are helpful and friendly.”
That’s not always the way, she says quietly, with the Department of Agriculture.