Rural Issues in the Burren
By Dr. Brendan Dunford

Strange as it may seem, up until the last century or so when people spoke of the Burren it was usually in relation to the high quality of the farm produce generated in this most unlikely of places. Take Thomas Dineley for instance, who visited in 1681, and observed that the Burren ‘raises earlier beef and mutton … than any land in this kingdom, and much sweeter by reason of the sweet herbs intermixed and distributed everywhere’. Of course the celebrated flora, geology and built heritage of the Burren was a by-product of this farming activity, and it is this remarkable heritage that has really captured the public imagination in recent years, while the significance of agriculture continues to diminish.

The ruins of an old farmhouse, evoking an
era when these hills were teeming with
farming activity.

Though the future prognosis for farming in the rough, rocky uplands of the Burren may appear bleak, we can not, and should not, write off agriculture in these areas just yet. As with Ireland in general - its dense patchwork of fields with their forty shades of green - when we speak of the Burren environment we speak of a farmed environment, one that has been shaped and sustained by agriculture. In the thirty years since Ireland joined the EEC the rate and scale of change that has taken place in farming and in the Irish rural landscape has been profound, far greater than anything previously experienced. Now with the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, new challenges and opportunities beckon in terms of how agriculture - and the environment upon which it depends - is developed, in north Clare as elsewhere in Ireland and Europe.
Much of the debate so far on this issue has revolved around terms such as ‘sustainable’ land management and ‘multifunctional’ agriculture. Behind these glib terms lies a very real meaning: traditional small scale farming systems in marginal areas which focused solely on production will have to develop new products and markets if they are to survive in future. Over the past thirty years the number of people working the land in the Burren has halved, while more and more young farmers are opting for a more secure future off the land. Rural communities, and the generations of knowledge, culture and tradition accumulated within them, are dying. If we are to retain these skilled and knowledgeable custodians of the heritage on the land, there is an urgent need to invest this land, and thus farmer’s potential livelihoods, with a new relevance beyond that traditionally associated with farming.

Ensuring the continued presence of livestock on the Burren, and farmers to manage them, may be one of the biggest challenges facing the Burren in future