Farming Decline Threatens Ireland's Orchid Oasis

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2003

Traditional farming methods in the Burren, the dramatic limestone landscape in western Ireland, are in decline. With the falloff in old- style agriculture, the region's remarkably diverse plant community, including many rare wildflower species, is also in peril.

So says a new four-year study sponsored by the Irish government, which highlighted the key role winter grazing of livestock plays in keeping invasive scrub plant at bay.

The research findings were published earlier this month in the tome Farming and the Burren, written by Brendan Dunford, an agriculture-environment advisor to the government's Teagasc, also known as the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. The government agency sponsored the study.

"For many generations farmers have played a central role in creating and sustaining this rich environment, a contribution that has been poorly understood and under appreciated. The importance of a strong, active, indigenous farming community for the future of the Burren is highlighted by the findings," Dunford said.

The Burren—from the Irish for "a rocky place"—is a 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) limestone outcrop which rises like a lunar landscape from the lush countryside of County Clare on Ireland's Atlantic coast.

A botanist's mecca, its calcium-rich hills are home to nearly 700 plant species, including 22 orchid varieties. Many of the plants are seldom found elsewhere in the British Isles. The Burren is particularly noted for such native plants as the bloody cranesbill, dark-red helleborine, fly orchid, mountain avens, O'Kelly's spotted-orchid, and spring gentian.

The Burren is unique in playing host to both Mediterranean and arctic-alpine species. Plants like the maidenhair fern, which is equally at home in Hawaii, enjoy mild conditions in the Burren thanks partly to stored summer heat that radiates from the limestone in winter. In contrast, the spring gentian, which usually flowers high in the Alps, also grows here, but at sea level.

Ice Age Influence

Arctic-alpine species are relics from the last ice age. Glaciers scoured the surrounding landscape, leaving behind exposed limestone pavements. These were laid down millions of years ago, the result of dead marine plants and animals accumulating in horizontal beds. Fissures, known locally as grykes, cut through these pavements. Today they form spectacular rock gardens, filled with ferns, honeysuckle, and other plants.

Despite its inhospitable appearance, the Burren has a 6,000-year history of human habitation. Hundreds of ancient tombs and forts litter the region. Its wildflowers have been dependent on man since Neolithic farmers began clearing away the old forests thousands of years ago.

"The riches of the Burren are inseparable from the farming communities that created and sustained them over many generations," Dunford said.

But the link between farmers and the land is now coming under increasing pressure. Paddy Maher, manager of the Burren Centre in Kilfenora, said: "In Ireland farming is in decline and people are leaving rural areas. The last national census showed they are moving east, with Dublin mushrooming over the last two decades. Urban living is more attractive because there's more work and the lifestyle is easier."

Continued on Next Page >>


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