Michael Viney, long term columnist with the Irish Times wrote a wonderful article about farming for conservation in the Burren for the lates issue of Burren Insight 3.
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People in Their Place By Michael Viney
My first immersion in the wilder landscape of the Burren came twenty years ago when David Cabot and I were making a documentary film about its gifted cartographer, Tim Robinson. “Folding Landscapes”, shown on RTE and BBC, was a celebration of solitary genius – not that Tim, tramping doggedly over the grikes in mist or pouring rain and cycling from one chilly, out-of-season, B&B to another, to compose his “graphic expression of a sense of place” can always have found himself in celebratory mood.
As we re-enacted his meticulous mapping of contours and lost monuments in the mossy, Lilliputian jungle of the hazel scrub, or on the bleak and clattering heights of the hills, or tracked the squeak of his old bicycle along deserted boreens, it was, indeed, the strangeness and intensity of his lonely enterprise we were wanting to convey.
Tourists may now arrive by the busload, but so much of the Burren has been defined by individual, questing strangers – botanists, ecologists, geologists archaeologists, poets, painters, writers – all pursuing their own special versions, visions, explorations, understandings of the place. Many have been natives of the neighbouring island, some reluctant to acknowledge that “this wondrous Eden”, or however it struck them, was actually not part of Britain.
Tim Robinson, while very English, learned Irish in his years on Inis Mór, and his marvellous books and maps of Aran and Connemara have rediscovered, even for Ireland, the crowded meanings of these landscapes. His wanderings on bike and foot have not been purposely solitary, but enriched by the potential of every wayside chat. In a 1987 essay on his Burren explorations, he told of meeting a farmer on the slopes below Mám Chatha who identified a set of grassy mounds as the grown-over remnants of fulachta fiadh, the cooking-places of ancient huntsmen – this at a time when archaeologists consulted by Robinson were (wrongly, as it turned out) sceptical of their presence in the Burren.
It was in that essay*, too, that he wrote so despairingly of the prospects of conserving the Burren, citing helicopter spraying of hillsides with fertiliser, with
grants from the EEC. “The financial, legal and moral persuasions necessary to preserve the Burren from such ‘improvement’,” he wrote, “have not yet been discovered.
So many years on, the right “persuasions” seem, índeed, to have been discovered, and the Burren’s long polarisation between the special roles of natural science, aesthetics, and art, and the practical livelihoods of the region’s people, is being brought to an end. In the BurrenLIFE project and subsequent programme of Farming for Conservation lies a shared ownership of how such a rare landscape should be valued – the people of the place have been brought home.
Reading a major report on the project in British Wildlife, the leading UK ecological journal, ** I was struck first of all by this welcome recognition of the project’s wider importance, and then by its practical detail. Here is high ecological purpose fitted to the problems of day-to-day farming. The solutions – jointly and often ingeniously arrived at – restore traditional outwintering of cattle across the limestone scarps without the concentrations of animals for feed and water that have come to threaten special and fragile habitats. Many measures are essentially so simple as cutting new paths through encroaching scrub, restoring the guiding pattern of old stone walls, and providing nose-operated pumps for water.
Co-operation on an initial score of farms has made it possible to monitor the benefits of changes in grazing and feeding regimes in return for closely-costed actions. While the BurrenLIFE project was funded by the European Commission, a new Government investment has spread its measures to a further 100 or so farmers to the end of 2012.
But the Burren is much more than a collection of priority habitats, or prime photo-opportunities for tourists. Its broader reach of settlements and culture demands a strategic approach to managing the region as a whole – a vision urged for decades in one report after another. Responsibility for the region’s development is now fragmented into many different agencies with different objectives, lacking any structure for local participation.
Such concerns are more than regional. In December, the Heritage Council called yet again for a Landscape Act. Its new manifesto, Proposals for Ireland’s Landscapes, *** argues for pulling together all the facets of landscape management – economic, social, environmental – in a joined-up oversight of land-use. A decade after Ireland signed up, nominally, to the European Landscape Convention, the Heritage Council echoes its emphasis on community involvement and “ownership” of place – getting agreement on what actions people want and then enabling them to carry them through under the framework and charters of the national Act. The Council’s document cites the BurrenLIFe project and its Farming for Conservation programme as offering key principles for “a new approach to managing our countryside”, recognising the central role of the farmer but also bringing farmers together with ecologists, agronomists and economists.
Even as this major advisory document was published, the Heritage Council’s budget from the Department of the Environment was slashed by almost 50%, undermining its hopes for a new Landscape Observatory to support and help implement the workings of a Landscape Act. But while national funding for almost anything new is vanishing by the day, there is nothing to stop a new government from improving structures and opening them up to local participation.
Among BurrenLIFE’s finest achievements has been the sense of meaningful identity it has helped to foster in the region’s communities – a sense reinforced by a whole network of new activities, contacts and events. This social energy needs to cohere, endure and grow, asserting its voice and contribution even in these nationally chaotic times. The rocks remain – and so must the new spirit of their people.
*In “The Book of the Irish Countryside” (Blackstaff, 1987). ** British Wildlife, October 2009. *** “Proposals for Ireland’s Landscapes 2010”. Heritage Council.