Introduction to the Burren and Mullaghmore

The Burren (from the Irish bhoireann - a stony place) lies in the northwestern corner of Co. Clare. Over 300 square kilometres in extent, it is the largest area of karstic limestone in western Europe. Its boundaries are clearly defined to the north and west by Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the south the limestone is overlain by shales and the boundary, although meandering, is generally easy to recognise. The shales are known locally as "cold stone" and give rise to poor soils with impeded drainage. The eastern boundary is less clearly defined but is generally considered to lie where the uplands give way to the lower ground. But here there is room for dispute as extensive areas of these lowlands have a karstic nature and only gradually become covered by glacial drift as one moves eastwards.

The Burren uplands, at first glance, present a bleak appearance - having been largely denuded of soil by glaciation and also by farming activities from the Neolithic onwards. But closer examination reveals the beautiful diversity of flora for which the whole region has justly become famous. Growing in the thin soils and from crevices in the stone one can find an abundance plants which are usually considered rare. Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) is so abundant that it has become the unofficial symbol of the Burren. The creamy petals of Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) light up the limestone and, in places, it seems to be as abundant as Buttercups are in an overgrazed pasture. The Mountain Avens is most definitely an Alpine species yet here it can be found growing beside the Dense Flowered Orchid (Neotinea maculata), which is generally found in the Mediterranean. This juxtaposition of alpine and Mediterranean species is not the only curious aspect of the Burren flora. On the high ground it is possible to fond lime hating plants - such as Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris) - growing directly on limestone pavements. For the botanist a visit to the Burren can pose more questions than it answers.

The valleys of the Burren tend to be more well endowed with soil and are being farmed in an increasingly intensive fashion. These areas are less interesting than the seemingly wild uplands from a botanical perspective but they are an essential component in the landscape. The uplands are absolutely dependent on the grazing by cattle and sheep for the maintenance of their character. This is very much a cultural landscape, having been formed by the steady interaction between farming communities and their environment since the neolithic.

A pattern of grazing known as "winterage" has evolved. Animals feed on the lower ground during the summer but in the winter, rather than being housed, are put out onto the uplands. The flora of the uplands can flower and set seed freely during the summer months. The winter grazing controls the spread of$competitive grass species and prevents the natural succession to hazel woodland taking place and hence contributes to the maintenance of the open nature and floristic diversity of the landscape.

You do not have to be a botanist to appreciate the beauties of the Burren. The colourful exuberance and profusion of the wild flowers will captivate all but the most dour of hearts. Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) dance gaily on their slender stalks with the summer breeze and the striking purple of the Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) startles the eye. All this against the subtle greys of lichen flecked limestone.

The archeology of the area is also stunning and relics of every period of human occupation are to be found. The vortal tomb at Poulnabrone has yielded a date from a burial of 3800 BC, and is one of the most frequently visited monuments in the county. There are more than 60 wedge tombs recorded in the Burren, the densest concentration in the country. Dating from the early historic period there are numerous examples of raths (earthen ring forts) and stone cashels, several of which are known to have remained in occupation until late medieval times. There are also numerous ecclesiastical sites.

There are, apart from these obvious field monuments, features which are not so easy to see on the ground. Aerial photographs reveal complex networks of mound walls. These are the remnants of ancient landscapes, still visible here because the stony nature of the Burren upland never encoureged the use of the plough. In places there are a number of field systems, superimposed over one another, all overlain by the modern field walls. While it is unlikely that any wall still standing to a reasonable height will be more than a century or two old there can be no doubt that some of the modern walls follow lines laid down in prehistoric times. While walking alone in the Burren the sometimes lonely feeling of being in a wild and empty place can be offset (or perhaps exaggerated, depending on your mood) by refergnce to the artifacts of past human activities with which you will invariably find yourself surrounded.

The area around Mullaghmore is widely recognised as one of the most floristically interesting and diverse parts of the Burren. The Irish Wildlife Service had plans to designate the area as a National Nature Reserve. It should form part of the core area of the Burren National Park. Apart from the partially completed National Park interpretative centre it is largely undisturbed. The Burren Action Group continue to contend that this is not the place to concentrate tens of thousands of visitors annually. The problems which have arisen due to the siting of visitor facilities in sensitive core parts of protected areas internationally are well known.

Conservation of this unique landscape will be a complex process. The maintenance of the farming practices which have generated so much of the beauty and scientific interest of the area is of primary importance. It should be obvious thgt farmers are the best persons to carry out these practices. In the past farmers have received subsidies to increase production. Today they are under severe economic pressure to maintain and even increase already respectable production levels. It is either this or go out of business. A stark choice!

The Burren is part of our national (and international) heritege. It would be unreasonable to expect local farmers to bear more than their fair share of the costs of conservation. Their role as the primary managers of the landscape must be recognised in any plans for managing the Burren. As agriculture becomes more market driven a mechanism must be developed which will compensate farmers who are constrained by conservation management prescriptions from competing freely.

The impacts of tourism must also be considered carefully. As numbers of tourists in the Burren increase certain sites are coming under very severe pressure. A flexible mechanism for handling tourist access to the Burren is essential. While the environment can suffer the farmers also have costs to bear - not least as a result of the damage to walls and disturbance to stock caused by trespassers.

It would be wise to ensure that the local community is able to benefit economically from the development of tourism. Consider the following scenarios:

In each of these cases there are certain costs and benefits to the local community. Most tourism in the area falls between these two extremes. Careful analysis of all tourism projects is needed to determine what costs are bearable and what types of tourism provide maximum return for minimum cost.

General policy objectives for conservation in the area are reasonably well defined in the European Community Habitats Directive of 1992. It is now up to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to clearly define which features of the area are of conservation importance. Measurable attributes for these features should be selected and objectives set for them. Monitoring will be an essential part of this process. When the conservation needs are defined and objectives set then it is time to determine what actions are necessary to allow the objectives to be met.

It is clear that a new structures and approaches are necessary if a coordinated approach is to be taken to meeting our conservation obligations and the needs of local communities.

Comments to burrenag@iol.ie

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