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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