Farming Decline Threatens Ireland's Orchid Oasis

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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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