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Where farming and biodiversity unite

The BurrenLIFE project, which ran between 2005 and 2010, developed a new model for the sustainable agricultural management of the priority habitats of the Burren region. It is a project regarded by many as an emblematic ‘LIFE’ nature project.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Famous for its exposed limestone landscape and rich biodiversity, the scenic Burren is located between north Clare and south Galway. The region contains a range of interesting geological features, some of the best limestone pavements anywhere in the world and species-rich grasslands. It is renowned for its monuments, ranging from stone forts to megalithic tombs, a remarkable legacy in stone, tracing the evolution of farming society on this rocky outpost. It is celebrated for its flora and fauna, with three-quarters of all of Ireland’s native flowers found here. Most of the region is protected as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

It is no wonder then that the unique Burren region has become a shining example within Ireland and for the rest of the EU of how to protect high-nature-value areas – and the special role of farmers.

The BurrenLIFE project developed an evidence-based approach to managing species-rich grasslands, other limestone habitats and water quality as part of livestock systems in the Burren. It was selected in 2010 as one of the “Best of the Best” nature projects from the LIFE Programme, the EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action.

The project was used by DG Agri as an example to guide future European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs). It was instrumental in not only informing the development of existing and future agri-environmental policy and schemes, both in the Burren and elsewhere, but it also became a template for the advancement of future research.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Over 178km of stone walls have been repaired since the BurrenLIFE project began, enabling more targeted grazing and easier management

Farming in the Burren

Farming plays a vital role in maintaining the Burren. Without the farmers, the Burren as we know it would cease to exist. For almost 6,000 years, the exploitation of the land by generations of farmers shaped the region, creating a dramatic landscape. However, reduced farming activity in recent decades led to the slow degradation of priority habitats through under-grazing, abandonment and the loss of land management traditions.

Brendan Dunford, BurrenLIFE Project Manager, reflects: “In essence, the BurrenLIFE project supported the farmers of the Burren to deliver defined environmental objectives: maintaining their traditional system of seasonal cattle grazing, while protecting the region’s unique plant life.”

The resultant landscape is the product of thousands of years of farming activity, but protecting the Burren hasn’t proved easy.

“It’s an evolving entity, continually influenced and subjected to a range of forces,” continues Brendan. “Hence, the continuation of farming is the best way to protect this landscape. But we’ve seen a dwindling number of farmers and a decline in old traditions such as the grazing of the hills in winter in favour of more productive and convenient solutions.”

TResearch Autumn 2023

Farm demonstration events were a key peer-to-peer approach to sharing best practice

Out-wintering and transhumance

For thousands of years, the tradition of out-wintering has been practised in the Burren. In contrast to other regions in Ireland, the practice of housing cattle was unfamiliar. The term ‘transhumance’ describes the seasonal movement of livestock between summer and winter pastures. In the Alps, it refers to the moving of livestock up to summer pastures, but in the Burren the reverse is the case.

James Moran, Conservation/Ecology Specialist on the project, explains: “Winterages are uphill areas of land where grass grows among the exposed limestone rocks and are ideal areas for out-wintering cattle.”

From mid-October onwards, farmers herd their cattle up onto the rocky Burren winterages where the heat absorbed from the summer sun by the limestone is slowly released in the winter, resulting in a dry warm place for livestock to lie.

“Winterages provide an abundance of forage,” continues James, “as the high-nature-value lands provide the cattle with a wide range of species-rich grasses and herbs to graze on for the winter months.”

TResearch Autumn 2023

The Burren is a biodiversity hotspot, hosting over 70% of our native flora and supporting a vast array of wildlife

Blueprint for new initiatives

The experience gained through research and on-the-ground work by the project partners acted as the blueprint for the development of new initiatives to support farmers in other parts of the country and the EU, where good farming practice is essential for the maintenance of high-nature-value areas shaped by thousands of years of farming.

One of the key success factors in the BurrenLIFE project was the support of the Burren Irish Farmers’ Association and the local farming community.

“They were true partners in the project,” says Brendan, “and their leadership and championing of the project underpinned the transfer of the project’s messages.

“Building on these farmers’ practical knowledge, experience and skills, Teagasc was instrumental in bringing their technical expertise to bear on the situation, to include investigating new systems of supplementary feeding, targeted grazing and water provision – not just for their production value but also for their value in conserving the Burren’s rich heritage.”

This back to basics ground-up approach was implemented on a select number of BurrenLIFE monitor farms, with a LIFE plan compiled to cater for the unique situation existing on each and every farm.

The Burren’s expansive and diverse landscape cannot be managed in isolation from the farmers.

“The positive role they have played through their bespoke traditions and ongoing hard work are critical for the Burren’s future” says Brendan. “It’s important that we celebrate and support this.”

Research (on this and related projects), training and targeted incentives will help ensure these farmers’ critical role is upheld and strengthened into the future.

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During BurrenLIFE, a database of over 80 local ‘conservation contractors’ was assembled, mostly from local farm families

Project objectives

One of the objectives of the project was to develop a blueprint for sustainable farming in this unique landscape, and to meet the needs of the special environment and that of the farmers who manage it.

An ambitious work programme included:

  • implementing best-known management practices, including new feeding systems, redeployment of existing livestock and targeted scrub removal
  • developing new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of the Burren habitats through research and advisory services
  • marketing initiatives
  • co-operative structures
  • the revision of existing agri-environmental schemes.

Through a range of practical initiatives, aimed at empowering local communities, the project also incorporated enhancing awareness and skills relating to the heritage of the Burren and its management.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Project legacy

After the BurrenLIFE project, Brendan, along with a number of colleagues, set about pioneering a farmer-led scheme, which incorporated, for the first time in Ireland, a ‘result-based’ approach to payments. As a direct consequence, the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme (BFCP) was launched by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2010, providing payments to farmers of about €1 million per year.

BFCP was ahead of its time in using a bottom-up approach, which made the Burren farmers key in the decision-making process. The programme has acted as a blueprint for other locally led schemes across Ireland and across Europe.

By 2013, over 14,500 ha of SAC were covered by the BFCP, covering 46% of the Burren SAC area. By 2022 this had increased to 23,000ha, over 70% of the SAC area. This work directly informed the expansion of targeted output-based agri-environmental projects in the Irish Rural Development Plan 2014-2020.

Ireland has already played a key role in relation to the innovative design of agri-environment schemes like the Burren Programme and more recently through the innovative delivery model of European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs). Sustainable agriculture can continue to protect and improve our environment while facilitating the growth of Ireland’s EIP programme, which is among the most ambitious of any member state.

The years ahead will continue to determine how successful the novel approaches implemented through this project prove to be with the future of some of Ireland’s and the EU’s most valuable landscapes dependent on project innovations and successes.

“The BurrenLIFE project was just the beginning,” reflects Brendan. “It was the basis from which to move forward in a more informed, inclusive, and ultimately, effective and sustainable manner.”

“The Burren IFA and the local farming community were true partners in the project and their leadership and championing of the project underpinned the transfer of the project’s messages.”

Did you know?: The name Burren originates from the Gaelic word ‘Boireann’, which means ‘place

of stone’.

Did you know?: In 2019, the tradition of ‘Winterage in the Burren’ was added to a UNESCO inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage celebrating living cultural heritage practices in Ireland.

Before BurrenLIFE

Brendan Dunford, BurrenLIFE Project Manager, took part in a four-year Teagasc-sponsored post-graduate research study, the precursor to BurrenLIFE, from 1998 to 2001. Teagasc published his PhD research project in book form as Farming and the Burren.

In securing funding through the EU LIFE fund, the project partners of National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Teagasc and Burren Irish Farmers’ Association, sought to address some of the issues identified in the initial project and to develop a blueprint for the Burren’s sustainable management. The BurrenLIFE project carried through from 2005 to 2010 and was acknowledged as the first major farming for conservation project in Ireland and one of few EU projects to place farmers at the helm of the conservation agenda.

Back in the early 2000s, Brendan noted: “Often when we think about biodiversity in farming, we think these two just don’t get on very well. Farming is viewed as being very destructive towards our environment, biodiversity or water quality or habitats, but actually that’s not always the case.

“And in most of our high-nature-value farmed landscapes in Europe, it’s because of farming that we have those special values in the first place. So, what I’d say is the wrong type of farming is very destructive. But the right type of farming is critically important.”


We would like to acknowledge the work of the BurrenLIFE project team: Brendan Dunford, BurrenLIFE Project Manager; James Moran, Conservation/Ecology Specialist; Sharon Parr, BurrenLIFE Project Scientist, Ruairí Ó Conchúir, BurrenLIFE Project Finance and Operations Administrator. The Steering Committee Members (Teagasc) are Sean Regan, Anne Kinsella, Declan Murphy, Tom Shanahan, Gerard McMahon and Denis Kelleher (Farm Recorder). Other contributors and collaborators include Burren IFA; other Teagasc specialists and researchers and Teagasc advisory staff in Co. Clare.


EU LIFE funding and National co-funding, Teagasc grant-in-aid.


Anne Kinsella (editorial), Rural Economy and Development Programme, Teagasc, Mellows Campus, Athenry, Co. Galway. Email: anne.kinsella@teagasc.ie

Brendan Dunford (images), BurrenLIFE Programme Consultant, High Nature Value Services Ltd, Old Schoolhouse, Carron, Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland V95 K0NA.Email: brendan@burrenlife.com

Further Information

Visit the Burren Programme website:http://burrenprogramme.com/

More resources on the BurrenLIFE project: 

European Commission 

National Parks & Wildlife Service

'Farming and the Burren' by Brendan Dunford

[pic credit] BurrenLife