October 29, 2023
Analysis: The BurrenLIFE project has developed a blueprint for sustainable agriculture that meets the needs of both farmers and the environment. This article by Teagasc’s Anne Kinsella was first published recently on RTÉ Brainstorm.
The Burren is famous for its exposed limestone landscape, which includes a variety of geological features including some of the best limestone pavement in the world and species-rich grasslands. This rocky outpost in County Clare is known for its monuments and remarkable heritage of stones tracing the evolution of agriculture, and is most famous for its flora and fauna, with three-quarters of Ireland’s native flowers found here. You can find it at Most of this area is protected as a Special Area of Conservation.
The BurrenLIFE project has developed a new model for sustainable agricultural management of regional priority habitats. This was achieved by developing an evidence-based approach to managing species-rich grasslands, other limestone habitats, and water quality as part of livestock systems. In 2010, he was named one of the LIFE program’s “Best of the Best” nature projects.
This project has helped to inform the development of existing and future agri-environmental policies and plans and has served as a template for future research. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development used this project as an example to guide future European Innovation Partnerships.
Farming in the Burren
Agriculture plays an important role in sustaining the Burren, but reduced agricultural activity in recent decades has slowly degraded priority habitat through grazing, abandonment and loss of land management traditions.
Outdoor wintering has been practiced in the Burren for thousands of years, with livestock moving seasonally between summer and winter pastures. From mid-October onwards, farmers take their cattle to the winter zone of the Burren. There, the heat absorbed by the limestone from the summer sun is slowly released in the winter, providing a dry, warm place for livestock to lie down. In 2019, this Burren Winter Festival tradition was added to UNESCO’s Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which celebrates living cultural heritage practices in Ireland.
‘Back to basics’
One of the key factors in the success of the BurrenLIFE project was the support from the local farming community, including the Burren Irish Farmers’ Association. Teagasc’s technical expertise was also utilized to explore new systems for supplementary feeding, targeted grazing and water provision to protect the Burren’s rich heritage.
This “back to basics” radical approach was implemented on a select number of BurrenLIFE monitor farms, with LIFE plans tailored to address each farm’s unique circumstances. Vast and diverse landscapes cannot be managed separately from farmers and it was paramount that we celebrated and supported this through the project.
One of the goals of this project was to develop a blueprint for sustainable agriculture that meets the needs of the environment and the farmers who manage it. This includes practices such as new feeding systems, relocation of existing livestock, and targeted brush removal. Develop new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of Burren habitat through research and advisory services. Marketing activities. Review of cooperative structures and existing agro-environmental plans. The project also increased awareness and skills regarding heritage sites and their management.
What happened next?
Following the BurrenLIFE project, a pioneering farmer-led scheme was launched which was the first in Ireland to incorporate an ‘outcomes-based’ approach to payments. As a direct result, the Burren Farming for Conservation Program was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2010, paying farmers around €1 million a year.
By 2013, more than 14,500 hectares were covered by conservation agriculture programmes, covering 46% of the Burren’s Special Area of Conservation. By 2022, this has increased to 23,000 hectares, representing more than 70% of the area. This work directly influenced the expansion of output-based agro-environmental projects that he targeted in his 2020 Rural Development Plan from 2014. The approach implemented in this project will continue to have an impact on some of Ireland and her EU’s most valuable landscapes.
In securing funding through the EU LIFE Fund, the project partners of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Teagasc and the Burren Irish Farmers’ Association will address some of the issues identified in the initial project and support the sustainable management of the Burren. We have endeavored to develop a blueprint for this. The BurrenLIFE project is Ireland’s first large-scale conservation farming project and is recognized as one of the few EU projects that puts farmers at the forefront of the conservation agenda.
The Burren Winterage Weekend will be held across the Burren from October 27th to 29th to celebrate the Burren’s agricultural tradition of Winterage.
This article by Ann Kinsella, Senior Research Economist at Teagasc’s Rural Economic Development Programme, was first published on RTÉ Brainstorm. You can read it here.
The authors would like to acknowledge the work of the BurrenLIFE project team. Brendan Dunford, BurrenLIFE Project Manager. James Moran, Conservation/Ecology Specialist. Sharon Parr, BurrenLIFE Project Scientist; Ruairí Ó Conchúir, BurrenLIFE Project Finance and Operations Manager. Management Committee members (Teagasc) are Sean Regan, Anne Kinsella, Declan Murphy, Tom Shanahan, Gerald McMahon and Dennis Kelleher (Farm Recorder). Other contributors and collaborators include Burren IFA; his other Teagasc experts and researchers in County Clare, and his Teagasc advisory staff.