Monday, 5 November 2018

The Winterage Cattle Drive

The next day was our final day.   And the day of the Cattle Drive.  The BurrenBeo Trust organises the Burren Winterage School and Winterage Weekend every year - and the Cattle Drive is the culmination of all the events that have taken place over the last few days.   

It is a celebration of a unique transhumance, of hundreds of years of cattlemen taking their cattle onto the Winterage, up the mountain and of the tradition and relationship the farmers here have with their land.   The Burren has a special eco-system due to the limestone pavements, and the farming community are working together in an extraordinary way, helped by the BurrenBeo Trust, to protect and enhance not just the land but their past and their future.   

Treshnish is a High Nature Value farm too, and whilst we do whatever we can to look after the unique habitats and biodiversity we have here, we are restricted by needing to work within agri-environmental schemes which are broadly designed for Scotland rather than for our own unique set of habitats. In the Burren it seems that the powers that be listen to what the farmers are doing and support them in the direction the farmers take to look after the land in this traditional way.     We were impressed with the level of support, in trying to find solutions to whatever issues arose. 

In the morning we were drawn back to the limestone pavement near where we stayed in Fanore.  We picked a handkerchief full of Rock samphire to have with our last supper.   And enjoyed seeing the clumps of Carline thistle which we can find on Mull, but certainly not flowering at the end of October. 

The meeting place was at the farm behind New Quay Church at midday.   It was a beautifully sunny day, probably the best weather of our week, and the sun was warm.  The sun was bright and the shadows were deep. 

Hundreds of people had turned out.  Tea and cakes were provided at the start, bring your own mug.  With the numbers of people there I could see why they asked you to bring your own mug - much less wasteful than using throwaway ones.  Tables laden with scones and cakes in the sun before we started out.  It was a great place to people watch, in that way that you can when you don't know anyone!  Families and friends and farmers meeting up and catching up; children playing with a football; a father and his children playing with Hurling sticks and a ball; delegates from the Winterage School, like ourselves, watching it all.   

Some short speeches from the BurrenBeo Trust, welcoming us all and explaining the detail of the walk.  Hazel sticks were provided for those who wanted them, proper footwear was required if you wanted to do the full walk. 

The cattle were waiting in a small walled field to one side of the ancient green road.  Dappled light from the surrounding trees.  The priest blessed the cattle and retreated back through the gate on to the road.

The farmer opened the gate and let the cattle out of the field on to the green road, and then they were off with hundreds of people following along behind. A swirling outdoor clothing coloured line of farmers, farmers' families, visitors like ourselves, and local families steadily winding their way along the ancient road behind the cows.

We stopped on the way up to the mountain to look at a beautiful holy well, it was slightly set back from the green road.  Farmer noticed the thorn tree covered in faded bits of cloth first - the clootie tree - and then we found the source of the holy well, set back behind quite a big stone tank of water, in the side of the hill.

A peaceful spot, and a wonderful view over the lands below.  You can see how the scrub is encroaching on areas of the limestone which is not grazed in the traditional ways any more. 

If the Winterage is left ungrazed it will soon revert to scrub.  We did see areas which have reverted.  And it has a beauty of its own, with wild Holly trees standing out in their dark green berried finery against the autumn auburns and golds.   

At one of the farm walks we attended there was a discussion about how you couldn't use chemicals (even if you wanted to) to control the scrub because it would affect the water course.  So control has to be mechanical (cutting or pulling it out with machine) or grazing.  The benefits of grazing are that the cattle thrive on the limestone mountain in winter - on a diverse herb-rich diet and calcium-rich water. 

By the time we reached the winterage, the cows were heads down enjoying the herb rich grazing and were not phased at all by the hundreds of people who have followed them up there.   

At this point you could choose to walk further up on to the mountain and back to the church that way or go back the way we had come.  

We joined the snaking line of people heading up to the top, making our way up the grassy covered rock.  The views from the top were stunning.  

It is quite a novel experience to head off for a walk in a group of literally hundreds, but we were glad to be there and enjoyed it all.   The path we took picked its way back down to the green road, following in the footsteps of all those ancestors walking up here with their cattle.  

Saturday, 3 November 2018

In the footsteps of the ancestors

Farmer and I have just got home from a trip to Ireland.  A (farmer's) busman's holiday.  We went across to County Clare in the Republic of Ireland, to the Burren Winterage School and Festival.

The Burren is an area of Co. Clare on the west coast of Ireland, south of Galway.  It is coastal, rolling out across softly rounded hills and mountains.  It has the most extensive glaciated karst landscape in Europe - 'limestone pavements'  - which cover the hills right down to the sea in places.

Over 5000 years of traditional farming has helped create and maintain this extraordinary landscape.   Patchworks of green fields with grey stone walls leading into hazel thickets and scrub and up onto the apparently harsh rocky landscape of the limestone mountains.  On closer look, the limestone is nurturing a wide variety of wildflowers and plants, many of which were still in flower, months after they would have died off at home.  We saw lots of single Bloody Cranesbill and Carline thistle growing between cracks in the rocky surface of the hill.  The limestone, warmed in the summer sun, holds onto its heat and provides a comfortable dry microclimate for the cattle over the winter.  They drink from calcium rich streams on the mountain and come back down in the spring, strong boned and ready to calve.

Farming in the Burren has an ancient transhumance tradition called the Winterage when farmers take their cattle out on to the mountain to graze for the winter.  This is the opposite of most transhumance in Europe where the cattle and sheep are traditionally brought down off the mountain pastures for the winter and go back up in the summer!

High Nature Value Farming is central to looking after the Burren, and farmers and land managers are supported by the BurrenBeo Trust, an impressive organisation who work on behalf of the farming community and the wider community.   They started the Burren Winterage Weekend which brings farmers and the community together to celebrate the connection between the land and its people and the unique Winterage tradition.

The Winterage School brings farmers, advisors, and government officials together to a Conference of talks, visits to farms, and discussion groups over a few days.   The Burren is part of a European wide initiative to support high nature value farming and to encourage sharing of learning and experience between regions - called the HNV Link.   So delegates from several of the European projects were taking part in the Winterage School and Conference.

There was an impressive schedule of events over 4 days, but sadly we couldn't do it all.  We listened to a series of talks at the Winterage School and attended two very interesting farm visits, but the highlights of the Winterage Weekend for us were the Herdman's Walk and the Winterage Cattle Drive.

The Herdman's Walk started at Father Ted's house.  When Father Ted appeared on our TV screens we had no TV signal at Treshnish so it was totally lost on us, but thankfully Google knew all about it when we tried to find the farm on Google Maps!  It didn't recognise the farm name but when I tried Father Ted's house it took us straight there.

There was nothing Father Ted about the Herdsman' Walk.  The farmer, Patrick McCormack, described himself as a Herdsman, a (fifth generation) farmer and a poet.   He led us on a winding walk through fields and centuries, weaving a hypnotic spell around us all, regaling us with stories of the ancestors and this ancient connection with the land.    He told us stories of the battles that took place where we stood, and of those buried on unconsecrated ground - and on we walked through other fields, so green and fertile, warm sun on our backs.  Stories of witches and cows and streams running with milk, up through rocky hazel scrub, with limestone rock underneath our feet, hidden by decades of ivy, moss and lichen.

Occasionally, instead of hearing a tale handed down generation to generation, we listened as Patrick recited a particular poem before moving on.  We stopped at a holy well and bathed our eyes in the healing water, in dappled sunlight through the hazel and thorn trees.

Everywhere the land told stories of its own, drystone walls snaking across a hillside and ruins of houses crumbling under a soft layer of moss.  Finally up onto drier ground, at the bottom of a rocky bluff, with the limestone mountain above us we stood in the middle of an ancient fort, in the warm sun, as Patrick recited a poem of his own.   It was a magical walk, and gave us a different way of reading the landscape we were walking through.

Back down to earth in the Cattle Market at Kilfenor a few miles from Father Ted's House.  And afterwards a delicious lunch at a farm shop in Ennistymon.  This area has a proactive food network of producers markets and use of local produce, and everything we tried from St Ola goats cheese to organic Burren Smokehouse salmon to locally grown organic veggies was delicious!

Follow this link to read about our High Nature Value Farming at Treshnish. 

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