The Burren (from the Gaelic word Boireann, ‘place of stone’) is a very distinctive limestone landscape which extends over roughly 720km2 of north Co. Clare and south Co. Galway along Ireland’s mid-western coast. It is a refuge for a great many plant and animal species which are now rare elsewhere in Ireland and Europe, and also boasts a fascinating archaeological record which maps over 5,500 years of human endeavour on what is sometimes referred to as ‘the fertile rock’. Though largely privately owned, the Burren and its rich and varied heritage represent a public resource of inestimable value.
The Burren is sometimes referred to as a ‘lunar landscape’, and many people’s image of the Burren is of a massive sheet of bare rock intersected by deep fissures. However the reality is much different and more interesting. A wide variety of habitats exist in the Burren, everything from bare limestone pavements to some of the most fertile improved grasslands found in the country. Sometimes these diverse habitats are found within the same field, where a single step may take you from a limestone pavement, across a heath and into an orchid-rich grassland.
But the significance of the Burren is the presence of so many relatively rare habitats over so large an area, offering excellent ‘connectivity’ in contrast with the fragmented nature of such habitats elsewhere. The major habitats in the Burren, described below, are limestone pavements, orchid-rich calcareous grasslands, limestone heaths, scrub and woodlands, wet grasslands, turloughs, calcareous springs and fens. Over 30,000ha of the Burren has been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), under the EU Habitats Directive, a reflection of the importance of these habitats.
Farming is integral to the character and composition of the Burren. The ancient transhumance practice of winter grazing on the rough limestone grasslands and heaths is central to the health and diversity of the many species and habitats therein. In a similar way, much of the Burren’s archaeological and geological heritage can be directly linked to the work of generations of farmers.
Today, several hundred farm families continue to live and farm in the Burren despite the challenges posed in an era of efficiency-driven farming and by the rough, unforgiving terrain. These farm families produce excellent livestock as did their forefathers, and in many cases this is achieved using the same ancient pastoral traditions. Crucially, they also hold the key to the future