The Burren – Not What You Think

The Burren in North Clare is a tough nut to crack. When it’s described as a rocky, moon-like landscape it’s hard to see it as  a place that supports such a diverse range of life. It’s the kind of place that invites further exploration and requires deeper understanding. It’s difficult at first to appreciate its full potential.

Near the summit of Mullaghmore, cattle spend their winters on high ground rather than in sheds.

First, it’s grey. Very grey! Grey is usually drab and boring. We associate grey with lifelessness, a lack of vibrance and an absence of colour. When we age we go grey, we typically view office life as being grey and soulless. Grey invokes images of lonliness and sadness. However, grey is the primary colour of the Burren and somehow, it works.

 

Upon this grey and bare background all life and colour in the Burren sits – and it is this very background that allows the seasonal flowers, the wandering animals, the changing sky and the wild ocean to pop with colour. Green fields seem to be the deepest, richest green in contrast with the rock that surrounds them. And when those fields start to come into bloom in May, the kaleidoscope of colour can be breathtaking! Consider a fiery sunset catching the gentle slopes of Mullaghmore or Slieveroe, or the endless limestone pavement in the heart of the Burren, or outlining the tomb at Poulnabrone…you’re starting to see how the greyness of the Burren intensifies the colours that each season pass through it.

Next, how could all that rock support even one blade of grass? It’s understandable that moss or lichen would find a way to survive or even flourish here amidst all the limetone. However, the lichen and moss have to compete fiercely against the myriad flowers and ferns and trees to find a way to survive here. This rock provides the perfect home for plants to grow. Long, long ago these rocks were the living organisms of pre-historic sea creatures in a warm tropical ocean. Once dead, they fused over millenia and eventually rose from the sea to their current location. Every drop of rain unlocks another nutrient on this once-living rock and carries it to the soil. This soil is so charged with nutrients that animals fed here are said to be among the most sought-after by butchers and cattle-dealers.

Not only that, the variety of plant here is among the greatest in the world. Consider this statement for a moment:

The Burren covers 1% of the total landmass of the island of Ireland, however it is home to over 70% of Ireland’s wildflower species.

The Burren supports plant life from Alpine regions, from Arctic regions and from the Mediterranean Basin. It is thought to be the only place on earth to do so. These plants spread throughout Eurasia on glaciers during the last Ice Age. In most places all these plants died as the ecosystem could not support them. But in North Clare conditions were just right – rich fertile soil, mild weather supported by the gulf stream, shelter in the cracks (grykes) between the rocks and roving animals which ate and spread the seeds as they added their own fertilizer to the ground. Here we have such an abundance of flowers that Ireland’s oldest working perfumery “The Burren Perfumery” has been creating soaps, candles and perfumes with locally grown flowers since 1978. All on a bed of rock.

According to the UNESCO website the Burren contains over 2,700 recorded monuments and has been described as ‘one vast memorial to bygone cultures’. I once visited The Ceide Fields in North Mayo, said to be the best preserved landscape from early civilization in Ireland and perhaps even Europe. These are simply stone wall fields, built over 6,000 years ago, that were then slowly encased in bogland – preserving them for future generations. Think of them as the Irish answer to Pompeii. Much older. Less developed. However, they were developed enough as a society to bury their dead. A map of Ireland on the wall pinpointed every ancient burial site found in the country. The area around the Ceide Fields in North Mayo was dotted quite heavily, but the Burren in North Clare was almost fully coloured in! Even studying the OSI maps of the area, it’s clear to see that there is a well above normal number of ancient landmarks. There are fulachta fiadhs, cairns, burial sites, ringforts and standing stones. Amazing to think that this place teemed with human life given its seemingly hostile landscape. The reasons for this are many, and completely based on educated guesses (one must be careful when applying today’s logic to yesterday’s events). However, it is thought that the land’s fertility allowed early settlers to farm more efficiently than their counterparts in other parts of the country. They must have been more relaxed about their food production as they had more time on their hands to build these monuments.

The Burren is also a haven to various species of living creatures. Right throughout Europe the Lesser Horseshoe Bat’s numbers have been in steady decline as man invades and occupies more and more natural greenspace. This is forcing the bat to the brink of extinction. However, in North Clare its numbers are growing slowly and steadily. The ban on artificial fertilizers and insecticides on farms supported by the various Burren protection groups means that insects, bees and flies are flourishing. They encourage wildflower growth as they move from flower to flower. While their high numbers guarantee food for small rodents and birds. This food chain moves right up from the insect to the shrew, the bat to the fox and right up to the peregrine falcon and harris hawk. These incredible birds of prey can be spotted from time to time scanning the limestone pavement and green fields for rodent trails from high up in the skies. Visit the Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee to find out more about some of these magnificent creatures.

On a side note, the government must be applauded for their support of Burren wildlife and in particular their support of the Lesser Horseshoe Bat. Drive the new motorway from Limerick to Galway and you’ll pass under Ireland’s first and only bat flyover. This tunnel appears to be simply a regular road-bridge / flyover but on closer inspection, no primary road exists on the top. The engineers employed conservationists to plant particular flora to encourage the right insects to come along and make their homes here, which in turn attracted the Lesser Horseshoe Bat. This ‘Bat Flyover’ allows the bats to cross the busy motorway safely while travelling from their roosts to their feeding grounds. It’s too easy to give out about national leadership at times (and we all do it), but this is certainly a time where praise is well deserved.

 

Further evidence of the Burren’s ability to fly in the face of perceived norms is the fact that is home to Ireland’s only snake species. Well, kind of… Meet the Slow Worm. This is more commonly known as a ‘legless lizard’ and for a number of very technical reasons it isn’t classified as a snake. But, look at the picture! What would you call it? Supposedly, this reptile made its way to Ireland from England in the 1970’s, brought over as a pet possibly. However, this story cannot be fully verified, but we know that it hasn’t been living here since the last Ice Age. It is a very rare find and will usually only be seen on warm days basking in sunlight on warm roads or limestone pavements. (Apparently, the female Slow Worm will do exactly this in the days before giving birth). It is a carnivorous reptile and eats mainly slugs and smaller insects, laying in damp areas when hunting. The only sightings of this, let’s face it, snake have been in County Clare.

This piece only scratches the surface of the Burren and its diversity and its ability to surprise. See it for yourself and find out more. Join us!

– Enda

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