The Burren on Ireland’s western Atlantic coastline is a beautiful and unique area much of which is composed of priority habitats for conservation under the Habitats Directive. These habitats are significant repositories of wildlife and are valuable for farming, recreation and education. The Burren LIFE Project (BLP) focused its actions on private land and a limited area of State-owned land within the three main terrestrial SCIs that encompass over 30 000 ha of the Burren. Within this area there are sixteen Annex I habitats, five of them priority (limestone pavements, orchid-rich grasslands, petrifying springs, turloughs and Cladium fens). The exploitation of the land by generations of farmers, over 6 000 years, has ensured that large areas of limestone pavements have remained free of scrub, creating a dramatic landscape. In spite of this long tradition of agriculture in the Burren, recent years have seen the withdrawal, restructuring and reduction of farming activity. This has led to the slow degradation of priority habitats through under-grazing, abandonment and the loss of land management traditions. Recent research has shown that traditional pastoral systems are integral to ensuring the presence of over 70% of Ireland's native flora in the region. The area did have its own agri-environment programme, the “Burren Rural Environment Protection Scheme”, but the recent CAP reforms brought an opportunity to design a new model for ‘conservation agriculture’ in the Burren.
The project’s overall objective was to develop a new model for the sustainable agricultural management of the priority habitats of the Burren. A pilot project of this nature requires a considerable amount of preparation and monitoring in order to ensure that the proposed new mechanisms – to be carried out on a minimum of 2 000 ha – could eventually be transferable across the whole (60 000 ha) of Burren farmland. Specific objectives would therefore involve: (i) talking to the local farmers and generating support for the project’s model for 'conservation agriculture'; (ii) the selection of pilot farms; and (iii) drawing up of farm management plans for each of the selected sites. Studies addressing the impact of the land use stipulations on habitat quality, soils and water quality would also be implemented and matched with data on the condition of livestock and the costs of management.
The Burren LIFE Project (BLP) was very successful and achieved its main and subsidiary objectives. A rigorous process was used to select 20 pilot farms representative of the diversity inherent in Burren agriculture. Individually tailored management plans were drawn up for each of the farms, following the collection of baseline agricultural and environmental data, and extensive consultation between the project team and the farmer. The priority tasks identified in these plans were translated into the detailed project actions that were carried out on the project farms each year. The plans were reviewed regularly by the project team and the farmer and updated accordingly. The final outcome of this process was a series of trialled, costed management actions that form the basis of the new model for the sustainable agricultural management of the Annex I priority habitats of the Burren.
The project identified and provided solutions to a number of key issues:
- For the issue of housing livestock over winter, the project extended the winter grazing on traditional winterages by 25% using a range of measures;
- In a bid to encourage farmers to cut down on the use of silage, a special supplementary feed was also formulated, tailored to suit the area and to animals’ mineral and nutritional requirements. This led to a decrease of 61% in silage use;
- The karst nature of the Burren means that water is often in short supply, as most of the water flows underground and in a very unpredictable manner. The limited water availability restricts grazing levels and impacts welfare. The project improved water facilities by installing nose pumps and tanks on 18 farms including 26 new troughs and pumps;
- Poor farm infrastructure makes husbandry difficult and less effective. Therefore, the BLP restored 15 000 m of internal stone walls using local labour;
- Restricted access impacts on the grazing of winterages and stock herding: the BLP created access through clearing scrub from 55 km of paths and 5 000 m of trackways;
- Scrub encroachment reduces biodiversity. To address this, the BLP cleared scrub from 100 ha of priority habitats.
The project monitored the outcome of these actions on priority habitats, water quality, animal health and farmer income. All indicators showed that arguably, the only way the Burren priority habitats can be conserved is through the adoption of the measures promoted by the BLP. Importantly, the project exceeded expectations, as building on its success among the 20 pilot conservation farms; a much larger “Farming for Conservation Programme” has been launched. Supported by the agri-environmernt programme for Ireland, the scheme aims to bring 100 Burren farmers into the new agri-environmental programme.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).