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.  

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