Not many people know about this tiny region of Ireland located in northwest County Claire. About 250 kilometers square, the Burren is one of the most interesting sites for plant species in the world, not to mention its rich prehistoric background. But what draws people to this limestone-covered region is more than history. For decades biologists have been investigating the Burren for the remarkable way in which plants from all corners of the world can coexist here, even if Burren conditions greatly differ from those in their native habitat.
Everything from the artic-alpine to the Mediterranean region are represented here, as well as lime-loving and calcium-loving plants, woodland plants and field plants. It’s an interesting mesh of flora considering that to look at the Burren you would think it only a plane of gray limestone rock. In between the cracks, or “grykes,” of these great slabs flourish the fauna of the regions, which remarkably survive on minimal amounts of groundwater. In fact, 75% of the plant species found in Ireland are seen in the Burren, flourishing with the protection of the grykes where shallow soil accumulates and plants find tenuous, but nutritious rooting.
From the limestone paved region to short grassland, scrub, small areas of woodland, fens, lakes, cliffs and turloughs (or seasonal lakes) the Burren can also support its fair share of animal species. Mammals such as hares, foxes, bats, squirrels, badgers, rats, voles, and stoats are popular along with feral goats, of which the Burren National Park has their own herd. Along with mammals the region is ideal for at least 89 different species of bird including falcons, ravens and kestrels.
Surely this region is one of natural biodiversity, but it is evident even from this overview that man has had their hand in the Burren for a long time with the introduction of non-native artic and Mediterranean plant species and feral goat herds. So where is the line between the natural ecosystem and human interference? It’s a tough line to draw given Ireland’s long history of human habitation.
In the Americas many protected regions can still exist as they did hundreds of years ago thanks to the relatively recent introduction of large-scale agriculture and non-native species. But in places like Ireland agriculture is closely intertwined with the region, and in large part is what supports the wealth of plant species found in places like the Burren. Thanks to the hard winter grazing of cattle in the uplands, room is given to new spring plants who don’t have to complete for space with older plants.
But it is a delicate balance and with the decline in rural agriculture and new methods of cattle farming being used, the Burren is sure to be effected. How the changing global environment will effect the Burren also remains to be seen, but for all that this biologically rich area continues to floor botanists and sightseers alike.