Pics: Limestone underground set to keep Clare cattle warm for winter

The Burren’s unique glacial-era limestone landscape was a hive of activity last weekend, as hundreds gathered to celebrate the fifth annual ‘Burren Winterage Weekend’.

The special event commemorates the historical tradition in north Co. Clare whereby farmers move their cattle from rich, lowland, summer pastures up to the Burren hills where they will spend the winter.

The non-profit event, co-ordinated by the Burrenbeo Trust, with the support of the local community, also featured a conference on sustainable farming systems, heritage walks, farming demonstrations and food fairs.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, was among the many distinguished farming guests at the event.

Although more than 400 farmers participate in the Burren Programme – recipient of a special 2017 EU LIFE Award in recognition of its efforts in preserving and enhancing the local landscape – every year just one farmer invites spectators to experience the iconic herding drive.

Last weekend, farmer Patrick Carrucan, whose holding overlooks the Aran Islands, was the lucky host.

Dr. Brendan Dunford, manager of the Burren Programme, said all the farmers bring their herds up to the limestone cliffs at different times during September, October and November. The cattle will stay there for the winter season, and return next March or April.

“Some of them will calve out; others will be brought home as they begin to calve; but generally they forage on the winterage and the vegetation on the Burren floor. There is also plenty of water for them to drink.

The underfloor heating system of the limestone will keep them warm and fairly dry. It is an old tradition that has worked well here for a long time so we want to celebrate that by re-enacting the traditional drive.

The event is held to acknowledge the importance of this type of farming to society.

“Places like this wouldn’t be hugely productive in the agricultural sense so you couldn’t intensify too much. A lot of these places are being abandoned – grazing is reduced because it doesn’t pay – and they end up losing a lot of the biodiversity to scrub and heather.

This event shows that, with the right type of farming, you can continue to produce food and you can also continue to produce the right environment. It’s very important to support farmers in these environment.

After 20 years of developing the project. Dr. Dunford said he is delighted that growing numbers are coming to celebrate ‘Winterage Weekend’ every year. He also said the farmers who are involved in voluntary project are “very proud” of what they’ve achieved.

“It’s a result-based approach. The more a farmer delivers for the environment, the more we pay. The project is being embraced by farmers and the impact it’s having on the environment is very positive. It’s great to see that it’s working and to see more farmers being afforded the opportunity to come in, thanks to department funding,” he said.

A total estimated fund of €2 million is available to support the Burren Programme every year. The average annual payment for farmers taking part in the project is between €6,000 and €7,000.