The Burren: Invasive scrub threatens Ireland's botanical jewel


Changes in management techniques threaten one of Europe's most important botanical sites, but a team of scientists and farmers are working together to safeguard its future.

The Burren is considered one of Europe’s finest examples of a glaciated karst landscape. It is located on the mid-western seaboard of Ireland and covers an area of approximately 720 square km.

Over 70 per cent of Ireland’s native plant species are found here, including specialities such as the Dense-flowered Orchid (Neotinea maculata), Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) and Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala). 


Mountain avens: this Arctic plant abounds on the Burren

The unique assemblage of plant species is exceptional and is comprised of Arctic and Mediterranean, light demanding and shade tolerant, calcareous and acid tolerant species, along with alpine species found at sea level. Many of these species grow in a profusion seen nowhere else in the British Isles.

rich-calcareous-grasslandThe flower-rich grasslands, scrub and woodlands are important for butterflies, moths and are home to Ireland’s only native reptile, the viviparous lizard (Lacerta vivipara). Over 100 bird species have bred in the area which represents approximately 70 per cent of Ireland’s breeding birds. Mammals in the Burren include hare (Lepus timidus), badger (Meles meles), pine marten (Martes martes) and feral goat (Capra hircus).

The Burren has been inhabited for thousands of years and as such the cultural wealth of the Burren is highly significant. Archaeological remains are scattered in abundance throughout the beautiful landscape and the wealth of archaeological features, extending back almost 6,000 years to the famous Poulnabrone dolmen (one of over 80 Neolithic tombs in the region), are testament to millennia of unbroken human settlement.

The BurrenLIFE Project                                                                              

The BurrenLIFE project (BLP) was established to investigate management requirements of the Burren’s priority habitats – orchid rich grasslands, limestone pavements and wetlands - and to develop a model for sustainable agriculture in the region. The five year project is 75 per cent funded by the EU LIFE Nature fund and is the first major farming for conservation project in Ireland. A key attribute in its success is that it brings together all the stakeholders; researchers, farmers and conservation and agricultural authorities.

fly-orchidBurrenLIFE Project Manager Dr. Brendan Dunford said: "The Burren is Ireland’s greatest repository of natural and cultural heritage. This extraordinary and deeply fascinating place has been shaped by human activity – mainly through farming – for over 5,000 years. The first farmers cleared away the woodland cover by hand, opening up areas for Burren flowers to prosper. They grazed the grasslands in winter, browsing back scrub and rank grasses while allowing flowers to bloom and seed in peace. Today this flora and fauna attracts thousands of visitors annually to the Burren."

But the hazel and blackthorn scrub is back and controlling it is a major challenge. If allowed to encroach the cost of removal can run to 12,000 Euros per hectare so scrub has been cut and pathways opened up to allow access for cattle herding. The removal of scrub has had a significant impact on the habitats and there's a notable increase in the number of orchids observed in sampled areas.

scrub-encroachmentThe remoteness of the landscape is part of its magic but it means some areas are only accessible on foot. This makes herding and livestock management particularly difficult especially where the number of part-time farmers is increasing.


Scrub encroachment is impacting on the agricultural and heritage value of Burren grasslands


One of the key issues being addressed by the BLP is improving access onto winter grazing areas. In the past many farmers resorted to bulldozing tracks to improve access, which damages to priority habitats. The solution has been to pilot a system of best practice routes on six farms using ‘minimal impact’ construction with local limestone chip.

The karst nature of the Burren means that water is often in short supply, as most of the water is underground and unpredictable. This is a major issue for farmers and the project has funded a range of solutions from the use of ‘hydram pumps', pasture pumps, piping and tanks, to cleaning out old springs and walling new ones.

Throughout the landscape characteristic stone walls have been re-built. One of the features of the Burren - internal boundary walls - were traditionally important to manage stock, usually dividing a farm so targeted grazing could take place.

Getting the grazing and feeding systems right is another significant aspect of conservation and agricultural production on the Burren farms. BurrenLIFE together with Teagasc (a project partner) are working closely with farmers to implement new feeding systems through management plans. The main changes have included extended winter grazing in traditional winterage areas, adjustment of winter grazing levels, the reintroduction of light summer grazing of winterages and the summer grazing by sheep.

In a bid to encourage farmers to cut down on the use of silage, a special supplementary feed has been formulated, tailored to suit the area and animals’ mineral and nutritional requirements. Farmers are pleased with the feed and improvement in the level of grazing by animals, which in turn improves biodiversity.

The Future

Now that the pilot research phase of BurrenLIFE is complete, it's being extended to other farms. This effective partnership represents a new model of conservation – one where local farmers are empowered to protect their landscape.

Dr. Dunford concludes: "We have a legal and moral obligation to protect the heritage of the Burren and the only way to do this is by sustaining farming traditions such as winter grazing. BurrenLIFE provides the formula through which we can do this. Though there is a cost to ‘farming for conservation’ in such marginal areas, by supporting farmers to adopt suitable grazing and feeding systems today, we offset the high cost of scrub removal in future."