‘Farmers here have been minding the environment for thousands of years’
It’s a mild October morning in Fanore on the west coast of Clare where Burren farmers, neighbours and day-trippers prepare to do the reverse of the Alpine process and take their animals up to higher ground for the winter.
Farmer Patsy Carrucan is standing on a picnic table outside O’Donohue’s pub welcoming all and sundry to walk with his cattle to the limestone uplands. The event is part of the annual Burren Winterage Festival, a weekend of seminars, talks and walks hosted by the Burren Beo Trust.
“Taking cattle to the higher ground has been done here for thousands of years,” explains Patsy. “The rank grasses and flowers such as orchids and others that bloom in summer on the higher ground are not palatable then but in winter the cattle love them.”
Dr Brendan Dunford, the driving force behind the Burren Life Project, has been working on the project for 20 years.
“Farming in places like the Burren is more than just about food production,” he says. “Farmers in this area have been minding this sensitive environment for thousands of years, and we work with them to continue that while also making a living.”
This is echoed by Michael Davoren, chairman of the local IFA who says: “It’s the farmer who knows every corner of his own fields. We are all passionate about what we do here.”
Up to 400 farmers with a total of 25,000ha participate in the Burren Life Project and are rewarded with an average annual top-up of about €6,000 to €7,000 per farmer.
The talking is over and it’s time to hunt cattle. For a registration fee of €5 we get a drover’s stick, a cup of tea and a helping of local home cooking.
Fortified for the climb, we receive instructions from the coordinator of the Burren Life Project, Bridget Barry, and leave to meet the cattle. Climbing through elevating fields, we gather on a road above Fanore looking out to sea where the Aran Islands bask in the midday sun.
A local priest stands on a gate and blesses the animals, but with a hundred pairs of eyes staring at them and a phalanx of cameras whirring in their faces, they are reluctant to leave the safety of the pen. After some encouragement, one of them leads the way and the others follow.
After a spectacular but gentle climb we arrive at the uplands, where the cattle swish their way into the new pasture and gladly savour the first taste of their winter delights.
Patsy Carrucan explains that the herd will stay here until January when he will bring them back down for calving. Many farmers leave them on the uplands until March.
“Up here they are in a very low-maintenance environment. I come up every few days to say hello,” says Patsy.
It’s time for us to say goodbye and leave the cattle to their winter fare. The humans return to O’Donohue’s pub to bowls of steaming Irish stew, creamy pints and more than a couple of songs.
Cattle enjoy their winter grazing above Fanore
Right to left: Patsy and Anne Carrucan with their daughter Niamh, son Kevin and daughter-in-law Noirín