A living landscape

A visit to the Burren, one of the world’s most stunningly unique natural heritage regions is the beginning of a journey through time.

Nestling just off Galway Bay, on the western Atlantic coast of Ireland, are over 259 square kilometres of dramatic limestone karst landscape we know today as the Burren.

This is a region which was largely sculpted over the last two million years by God and his glaciers, through the exposure and submergence of its landscape to ice, ocean and the plate movements of the earth.

The splendid, distinctive limestone terraces and pavements of this region formed over the millennia like steps of stairs as glacial action plucked layers of stone from the hillsides. These terraces are made up of thick horizontal limestone layers or beds which were first laid down in a tropical sea floor about 335 million years ago, during a geological time period called the Carboniferous.

The trademark shattered and smooth pavements of the Burren are seedbed habitats for the amazingly diverse array of plants and wildflowers. Here alpine and arctic plants grow side by side with Mediterranean species. Over 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plant species are found here.

This diverse flora supports a wonderful diversity of fauna, and such a rich ecology is the result of a unique combination of geographical, climactic and agricultural factors found in the Burren. This phenomenon has been created by the prevailing Gulf Stream, soft rain, relative absence of frost and the carboniferous bedding of the plants. The Burren is sometimes aptly referred to as the ‘fertile rock’.

Yet what is truly unique about the Burren is that its landscape has also been shaped by its human story, and is a living visual legacy of the interaction between natural forces and humankind for over 6,000 years. Humankind has been central to the formation of the Burren Circle of Life and farmers have been an integral part of the ecosystem here.

It was the agricultural practices and clearance of the pine dominated woodlands with its understory of hazel that exposed so much bare limestone in the first place, the soil washing away down the fissures. It is the continued use of winterages over the centuries which sustain the Burren’s unique, world renowned flora and archaeology and has renowned benefits for both livestock and the environment.

This is the unique practice of moving cattle to lowlands in summer and to highlands in winter and is the only region in Europe where this practice takes place.