The Burren's Bounty
A flourish of orchids, a wealth of wildlife and a treasure of trees: the limestone flats of County Clare are a veritable melting pot of unexpected flora and fauna.
Since hearing that The Wild Honey Inn was the first Irish pub honoured with a Michelin Star last week, we've been daydreaming about getting out west to enjoy the abundance of the Clare landscape again. From food producers to perfumers, the rocky outcrop of The Burren has inspired a host of makers who draw from the region’s spoil.
Covering 125 square miles, it might look at first glance that it's a limestone landscape bereft of life, but it is in fact home to 1,100 species of plants. Indeed, the Burren has been referred to as “fertile rock” with a diverse array of life happily co-existing: Arctic-alpine plants, like mountain aven and spring gentian, sit cheek-to-jowl with the maidenhead fern and burnet rose of the Mediterranean. Sylvan sorts thrive in this vast open space, where calcicoles and calcifuges rub alongside each other with nary a cross word between them. No less than 24 native Irish orchids grow here, with Early Purple the first to flower in April, closing the season with Autumn Lady’s Tresses in September.
The lack of soil cover hasn’t deterred the wealth of tree varieties, with ash, blackthorn, holly and whitethorn trees taking root in the deep grykes. A scrub hazel woodland shelters woodmice, red squirrels, pygmy shrews, and the once-threatened pine marten or ‘tree cat’. All seven native Irish bat species can be found here, including the lesser horseshoe bat, and no less than 70 species of land snails have been recorded in the area.
Over 100 species of birds call the Burren home, with the chaffinch, song thrush, dunnock and yellowhammer nesting among the scrub, while the turloughs, or disappearing lakes, draw winter populations of widgeon, teal, whooper swans and golden plovers. The rich wildlife is no doubt the reason birds of prey like the sparrowhawk, kestrel, peregrine falcon and merlin are plentiful in the area. Over the last two years, a snowy owl has even been spotted in the area, far from its home in the Arctic.
This flourishing ecosystem has been credited to a sensitive farming tradition known as winterage, where cattle graze the upland grasslands between October and April, removing the dominant grasses. Livestock are then moved to the lowlands in the spring, before the first flowers emerge, allowing them to thrive.
This unique landscape has shaped a range of local businesses inspired by the area. Although farming the Burren isn’t without its challenges, Bríd Fahy of Linnalla Pure Irish Ice Cream says the rewards are delicious. “We often have to swim our cows to grazing! They graze year-round on the nutrient rich grassland of the lower Burren. At times, they will also eat seaweed to increase their mineral intake.” Local seasonal ingredients take pride of place, and autumn brings the greatest bounty with blackberries, hazelnuts and sloe berries are paired with more unusual flavours. “Wild gorse has a hit of coconut, sea buckthorn has a beautiful flavour, and I also use sea salt and seaweeds.”
Hazel Mountain Chocolate pays tribute to the hazel tree. “Just behind our factory there is a place called the Seven Churches of Oughtmama, where, a thousand years ago, people milled wild hazelnuts to make flour,” explains chocolate maker, John Connolly. “We are carrying on that tradition, using hazelnut flours in our gluten-free organic café.” Naturally, their chocolate uses flavours that are part of this unique place. “We have paired Madagascar cacao beans with seaweed, which my grandfather used to harvest; it’s the perfect blend of land and sea."
Sharing the bounty of the Burren is Oonagh O'Dwyer of Wild Kitchen, who conducts foraging walks on land and shore. “In spring, we gather chickweed, furze flowers, crow garlic and nettles. They are a tonic, full of iron and vitamins and minerals, a free superfood.” In summer, elderflowers, hawthorn and dandelion are plentiful, along with mint and sorrel. Autumn brings its own treasures with sloes for gin, rosehips for syrups and jellies, and haws, the red fruit of the hawthorn, “for my wonderful haw ketchup.” “We teach people how to harvest sustainably up to 12 of our beautiful seaweeds. In spring, nori is sweet from the frost, and pepper dulse, called the Truffle of the Sea, is dark and delicious. We also gather dilisk, the kelps, and carrageen, sea lettuce and sea grass with their amazing green colours.”
Nestled in the beating heart of this wild, thriving expanse, The Burren Perfumery has, “always been about the location”, says Sadie Chowen, company director. “The West of Ireland has a feeling of purity: the air is clear, the landscape is unspoilt. The simple daily connection to the environment: the changes of light, the passing of the seasons – there is constant change and creative stimulus in that. It would be hard not to be inspired in this place.”
WORDS Tara Corristine