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."

Increased mechanization and a trend towards fewer but larger, more productive farms are additional factors that have led many Burren farmers to quit the industry. Numbers fell 10.6 percent over the last decade alone, with more than half of those remaining now dependent on outside sources of additional income.

The scale of the problem was recognized in a recent report by the government-sponsored Consultative Committee on the Heritage of the Burren, which stated: "Given that the conservation of the Burren is dependent on the maintenance of relatively extensive farming, we may be reaching a critical situation—where the numbers available to carry on the necessary extensive management practices may be simply not available."

The biggest concern, highlighted by Dunford's research, is the impact of reduced levels of winter cattle grazing on the Burren's flora.

Rich Winter Grazing

The Burren's limestone hills remain relatively warm and dry over winter, traditionally providing a healthy mix of vegetation for hardy native cattle.

"The animals thrive here," said Maher. "It's probably one of the few upland areas in the world where livestock are put out in winter rather than summer."

Dunford's studies show such grazing is crucial as it prevents the spread of scrub species like hazel which would otherwise crowd out orchids and other habitat-sensitive plants. Grazing also promotes biodiversity by removing domineering grass and weed species without damaging wildflowers which flourish unmolested through the spring and summer.

"The cattle do a great vacuuming job," Maher added. "They act like a natural cleansing system each winter."

But Dunford says there's no longer enough of these cattle, and those that remain are being replaced by more productive strains from mainland Europe. Their nutritional needs during winter cannot be met by the limestone hills, he says, adding, "Many of the upland grasslands in the Burren are not being grazed sufficiently to uphold high species diversity and withstand the advance of scrub."

The Clare County Council is now seeking funding from the European Union to develop a sustainable management strategy for the area. This could include financial support for farmers who maintain traditional grazing methods.

Dunford added: "The Burren constitutes a limited resource of international importance that must be protected."

If the close bond between the region's wildlife and farming community is broken, there's every chance the annual blooming of the Burren could fade away forever.

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