A cow grazing about 100 metres above sea level in a landscape which is a mosaic of bare limestone and thin soil. Clearly there is not enough grass for the livestock to survive and that is why the farmer must tend to the flock every so often with supplementary feed.
The Burren is the only region in Europe where livestock are transferred to the uplands in winter. This farming regime is known as reverse transhumance. The dominant soil type in the Burren hills is rendzina and it is resistant to destruction by the cattle. This is the main reason why the out wintering of the cattle at altitude takes place in the region.
The cattle could not graze in the valleys in winter as they would tear up the soil. Thus some Burren farmers opt to put their cattle indoors for the winter whereas others persist with the ancient transhumance tradition.
As I walk the Burren hills in winter, it is joy to come across the livestock. They must be happy beasts as they are outdoors all year round. Moreover, science has now concluded the hill cattle fullfil a critical cultural role. By grazing the hills in winter, they slow down the advance of scrub (mainly hazel) which would otherwise overwhelm the limestone pavement and archaeology. The scrub also out shades the Burren speciality flowers in spring. Studies have concluded that the livestock are optimum landscape managers. A true equilibrium is reached between man and nature thanks to this very unusual farming regime. Long may the tradition continue.
As I write sub-zero temperatures persist. Limpid days and bitterly cold evenings.
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger