With all the hoopla surrounding Halloween, there is another Irish Samhain tradition that gets overlooked, the practice of winterage in the Burren in Co. Clare.
Winterage is a practice of transhumance agriculture (where animals are moved from one grazing ground to another seasonally). On the Burren it’s the reason why local biodiversity is so unique.
The Burren is a limestone plateau with very little soil coverage in the northern half of Co. Clare. The name is Boireann in Irish, which simply means “great rock.” The lowlands and valleys around it are more fertile, and provide ample pasture for cattle for seven months of the year, but the farmers move their cattle up to graze on the Burren itself for five months every winter. (This is a reversal of most transhumance practices, where the highlands — in the Alps, for example — provide the summer pastures, as they’re covered in snow in winter.) This transfer of the cattle to their winterage grazing marked the end of summer, and took place around the Samhain festival (dependent on local conditions).
The limestone provides what the farmers call a “dry lie,” as the rain drains away quickly, and the ground is measurably warmer when compared to low-lying, soil-rich fields, which hold water and turns to mud (necessitating the expensive construction of shed, the removal of animals from the elements, and the provision of winter feed). Water collects in several shallow lakes around the Burren, and this water is calcium-rich due to the limestone it passes through, which is very good for the cattle. The proximity of ample grass, a dry lie, and plentiful water provides a very good grazing environment for cattle. The grass itself grows alongside many wild herbs, some of which the cattle eat, improving their general health and the quality of the meat.
The animals add fertilizer to the landscape, and eat the grasses; both of these actions assist the blanket of wildflowers — many very rare — that emerges every spring and covers the apparently barren Burren landscape during the summers, when the animals return to their farms, leaving the Burren to the wildflowers and the tourists.
Though the practice has endured for thousands of years, outside conservationists tried to stop the winterage grazing in the name of “protecting” the Burren in recent years. Happily, studies spawned by this misguided bureaucracy proved that the biodiversity actually depended on the winter grazing, and then initiated research projects where the academics and farmers worked together to understand and optimize the system. Agriculture in this part of Ireland has always been a marginal existence, but the local farmers found a way to maximize their resources long before scientists could explain why winterage was beneficial.
One outcome of those studies was the understanding of the need to educate the wider public (and policy makers) about the essential relationship between winter grazing and the health of the Burren ecosystem. Thus, the Burren Winterage Weekend was born, a weekend of events exploring local heritage and conservation farming techniques, and culminating in the annual cattle drive from the lowland fields to the highlands grazing.
Learn more about the Burren Winterage Weekend in this video:
Centered on the village of Carron, the weekend features “herdsman’s pilgrimages” across the Burren, workshops in conservation farming, music, exhibitions, farmer’s markets, children’s activities, and lectures on regional history, as well as service projects to repair walls and trails. There are also events in Kilfenora, Ballyvaughan, Kilnaboy, Shanaglish, Fanore and elsewhere around the area.
For more information about winterage practices in the Burren, and for details of the annual winterage festivities, visit http://www.burrenwinterage.com/