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Winterage in the Burren

‘Winterage’ is an ancient system of transhumance (the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures) most closely associated with the Burren and Aran Islands. Winterage is special as it is a highly unusual form of ‘reverse’ transhumance whereby livestock spend the winter out grazing on dedicated pastures, the opposite of what typically happens in other transhumance systems.

This is practiced in the Burren region (north Clare, south east Galway) and the Aran Islands. This region is one of the largest areas of glaciated karst in Europe and is of international renown.

Background information

Transhumance, the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures, is practised worldwide, typically entailing the transfer of livestock to upland pastures in summer once weather conditions are milder and forage is more readily available. In contrast, farmers in the Burren region have, for many generations, practiced a system of ‘reverse transhumance’ whereby livestock are moved to upland pastures (known locally as ‘winterages’) over the winter months, before returning to fertile lowland pastures for the summer. Thus ‘winterage’ in the Burren (and neighbouring Aran Islands) context refers to the grazing of the rough limestone grasslands between the months of September and April.

The Burren (720km2) is an area of exposed, waterworn limestone (‘karst’) with thin soil cover, sparse vegetation and largely subterranean drainage systems. A UNESCO Global Geopark, it has also been shaped by tectonic forces and several glaciations. Despite this apparently harsh environment, it hosts the richest biodiversity of any region in Ireland, containing almost 75% of the island’s native flora. Consequently, much of the region (300km2) has been designated as Special Areas of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive.

The Burren is equally renowned for its extraordinary cultural heritage, containing a wealth of archaeological remains which reflect six millennia of human occupation and land use, recognised by the inclusion of the Burren on Ireland’s Tentative World Heritage Site List. A key aspect of this cultural heritage is the ‘intangible’ practice of ‘winterage’. Though the origins and age of the practice are not known, it is likely that it developed as an adaptation to the local geography by pastoral farmers in the distant past.

In summer, the Burren’s limestone hills are largely devoid of water and the exposed rock can be uncomfortably warm for livestock, while the vegetation can be very coarse, dry and unpalatable. During winter however, there is an ample supply of calcium-rich water as the water table rises and springs emerge; failing this, rainwater is gathered using bespoke water harvesters. The coarse vegetation is broken down by early frosts to provide livestock with a crop of ‘standing hay’ during winter. The limestone itself acts like a giant storage heater, slowly releasing the summer heat and providing a ‘dry-lie’ for outwintering livestock while also enabling an extended growing season for grasses and herbs.

The relative attributes of the Burren uplands in winter – and its contrasting unsuitability for livestock in summer – must have been recognised long ago by local farmers who adapted their grazing systems accordingly, to beneficial effect. This adaptation has also been society’s gain: recent research has established the link between winter grazing and the survival of the Burren’s rich and rare biodiversity. During summer the Burren’s rich flora can flower and seed unhindered by grazing livestock, while in winter when these plants are dormant livestock are free to harvest the grasses and herbs which, if left ungrazed would form an impenetrable thatch which would gradually smother the flora and result in the re-encroachment of scrub.

Practice and practitioners

Winterage is a living tradition which continues to be practiced by the several hundred farm families of the Burren today. Typically, a Burren farm consists of areas of lowland grassland for summer grazing and fodder production, and areas of rough grassland for winter use. Depending on the relative proportions and capacity of these summer and winter lands, each winterage system will differ, ensuring a high level of variance across the region, within and between farms.

Normally livestock (mainly cattle- very few sheep remain in the Burren) are herded on to the winterages from September onwards. They may be walked and/or transported by lorry or trailer. They forage on the rough grasslands with very little supplementary feeding until at least Christmas after which some may be removed and housed. In most cases cattle stay on the winterages until March or even April. Some cows may calve on the winterages while others are removed before calving. Some supplementary feeding of hay, silage or grain may be provided to maintain animal condition. By the end of the winter stock may have lost weight but their ‘compensatory growth’ when removed to lush summer pastures is notoriously good.

Pockets of ‘winterage’ exist elsewhere in Ireland but not at a landscape scale of the Burren. Aran Island farmers do follow a very similar practice. Examples of ‘reverse transhumance’ are recorded elsewhere but are not as closely associated with a particular landscape as ‘winterage’ is with the Burren.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

Though the traditional practice of winterage continues in the Burren today, it has changed significantly in recent decades as the relevance of what were often labour-intensive, economically-marginal farming systems and practices continues to decline. While some of the changes are relatively minor – different breeds of cattle, new systems of transporting livestock, fewer dedicated herdsmen etc – others are more significant.

For example, many Burren farmers now house their livestock in slatted sheds for much of the winter, feeding them with silage. While more expensive, this system is far more efficient and suited to the predominantly part-time farm economy. In other cases, farmers keep their stock on the winterage, though feeding them with silage, the production and distribution of which is enabled by more highly mechanised farming systems.

Ironically, while the practice of ‘Winterage’ is under threat, its relevance to the heritage and economy of the Burren is becoming more widely accepted. Several research projects have highlighted the relationship between winter grazing and biodiversity in the Burren, confirming that better winter grazing maintains higher levels of biodiversity. The decline in farming – in particular on winterage grasslands – is closely linked with increasing levels of scrub encroachment which threatens the Burren’s natural and cultural attributes, restricting access for the growing number of visitors to the region.

An innovative response to these challenges was initiated in 2004 through EU LIFE funding in the form of the BurrenLIFE project. This project worked with local farmers to develop a blueprint for sustainable farming on the Burren, developing innovative supplementary feeding systems for outwintering livestock, removing encroaching scrub, repairing walls on pastures and protecting natural water sources.

The success of this project led to the introduction of the Burren Programme in 2010. Co-funded by the EU, the Dept of Agriculture and the NPWS, this programme pioneered a results-based payment system through which farmers are paid on the basis of the environmental health of their winterage grasslands. This has resulted in a revival in the ‘winterage’ practice as farmers are rewarded for good management – extended winter grazing, targeted supplementary feeding, well maintained walls and water sources, ongoing control of invasive species etc.

In 2014 the Burrenbeo Trust, a local landscape charity, co-ordinated the inaugural Burren Winterage Weekend, a community celebration of this ancient system which is so critical to support the Burren’s heritage. Held in late October, and rotating between different Burren villages every year, the festival includes a wide range of events – ‘Herdsman’s walks’ led by local farmers, a Food fair, an awards ceremony for the ‘best winterages’ and an international conference on sustainable farming – the Burren Winterage School.

The weekend culminates in the Cattle drove where local and visitors alike join a Burren farm family as they return their livestock to the winterage for another season. This event has achieved national prominence, offering a timely reminder of our farming traditions and their contribution to our national heritage.

The unique story of Winterage also features prominently in the Burrenbeo Trust’s Ait Bheo schools education programmes (www.burrenbeo.com).

Additional information

The term ‘Winterage’ is used here to loosely describe the traditional reverse transhumance practices employed by Burren farmers for many generations, an ingenious adaptation of their pastoral systems to accommodate the Burren’s geographical constraints, resulting in a competitive advantage – low overwintering costs – for these farmers which continues to be relevant to this day, albeit to a diminishing extent. Locally the term ‘winterage’ is often used to refer to an area of rough limestone grassland where the livestock spend their winter.

Such reverse transhumance practices are relatively rare in an Irish and European context, though occasional examples are found elsewhere. However, ‘winterage’ is synonymous with the Burren – and to an extent the Aran Islands – in an Irish context, particularly among the farming community for whom the ‘dry lie’ of the Burren is legendary. In fact farmers from as far away as Co. Meath bought winterage lands in the Burren in the past recognition of the low-cost and high quality of their overwintering capacity, and continue to farm these winterages today, often employing local herdsmen to manage them.

Winterage is a wonderful example of how rural communities have shaped their local landscape and in turn been shaped by it. Winterage in the Burren is also the key practice in maintaining the natural and cultural heritage of the region: better winter grazing means more biodiversity and less scrub encroachment, offering a modern relevance to this ancient practice. The decline in recent decades in the practice of winterage is of concern to all those who love the Burren, undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest heritage landscape.

Burrenbeo Trust, the Burren Programme and the farmers and community of the Burren want to sustain the practice of Winterage – not as a wistful reminder of lost farming traditions but as a living practice, integral to the health of this landscape and its people.

The embryonic success of the Burren Programme in supporting a reversion by some farmers to the practice of winterage has given this practice an economic boost which has been lacking in recent years as farming systems have become (understandably) more efficiency-focussed. The Burren winterage weekend has highlighted the social, cultural and environmental relevance of this practice, and reminded a new generation of urban and rural dwellers of the broader significance of pastoral farming systems across Ireland in sustaining our heritage and identity, beautifully and succinctly encapsulated in the annual Winterage cattle drove.

The Burrenbeo Trust has, over the past two decades, worked with almost 2000 young Burren children through its Eco Beo and Ait Bheo programmes – many of them the sons and daughters of Burren farmers and thus the future guardians of this landscape and this traditional practice – to remind them of the uniqueness and significance of the practice of Burren winterage and their role in sustaining it.

Contact organisation

The Burren Programme
Ennis, Co Clare

Related and supporting organisations

  • The Burrenbeo Trust www.burrenbeo.com
  • The Burren Irish Farmer’s Association
  • The Aran LIFE Project www.aranlife.com
  • The Department of Agriculture and Food, including Teagasc and Bord Bia
Location Clare, Galway, Aran Islands
Categories Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Keywords animals, ecology, farming
Contact organisation The Burren Programme
Ennis, Co Clare
065 7089000
info@burrenlife.com