Recently recognised as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Ireland, the Burren Winterage refers to a unique farming tradition that has been practiced in the Burren for thousands of years.
For thousands of years, Burren farmers have marked the end of summer by herding their cattle onto ‘winterage’ pastures in the limestone uplands where they spend the winter grazing. This ancient reverse ‘transhumance’ tradition is synonymous with the Burren and is key to the survival of the region’s famous flora and fauna.
The term ‘transhumance’ is used to describe the seasonal movement of livestock and people between summer and winter pastures. In most cases where it is practiced – such as in the Alps - it refers to the herding of livestock to summer pastures, but in the Burren the reverse is the case. It is thought that Burren farmers initially adopted this practice in response to the shortage of water in summertime, only to find that the warmth of the limestone and the ample grazing on the rocky winter pastures made the Burren an ideal, low-cost ‘outwintering’ environment for their stock.
Winter grazing by cattle, at a time when most flowers are dormant, enables the Burren’s renowned complement of flowers and insects to flourish unhindered in summer. Winter grazing is also critically important to the conservation of the extraordinary array of monuments built by farmers in the past, as it slows down the encroachment of damaging scrub. As Dr. Brendan Dunford, Programme Manager with the Burren Programme explains:
“The practice of Winterage is not only unique and intriguing, it's a big part of the reason why we have so many monuments, flowers and stories here in the Burren today. Witnessing the cattle browsing on the herb-rich Winterage pastures, drinking from the calcium-rich springs or enjoying the 'dry-lie' of the limestone captures the very essence of this 'fertile rock'."
Today, roughly 1,000 farm families live and work in the Burren region. Many of these farmers continue to follow the pastoral traditions of their ancestors, in particular the outwintering of cattle on the rough limestone grasslands. By doing this, they continue to produce exceptionally good, healthy free range livestock which are in great demand from buyers across Ireland and beyond.
But these traditions also have a wider relevance: winter grazing systems have been scientifically proven to be critical to the survival of the Burren’s famous flowers and fabulous fauna. New support programmes assess the ‘environmental health’ of these species-rich grasslands and reward farmers accordingly, while also funding the restoration of field walls and shelter walls, the protection of the Burren’s freshwater springs and streams and improvement of access to grasslands by removing invasive scrub.
These works and the continuation of age-old grazing systems in turn create a better environment for locals and visitors to enjoy, support a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and contribute greatly to the Burren’s emerging identity as Ireland ’s learning landscape.
So please come and celebrate this wonderful story at our Burren Winterage Weekend!