The Burren provides one of the world’s most profound lessons

Game Changers: Winterage weekend highlights a way of farming more in harmony with our place in the natural world

Winter is here, and cows are disappearing from fields. They are herded into sheds to stand on slatted floors, manure and urine slapping and dripping into underground tanks. This becomes slurry to be spread on fields in spring, smothering air-breathing soil life in a stinky soup. Some of it will wash off into rivers and lakes to join the run-off from heavily-fertilised grass and silage production, feeding algal blooms, the eerily green byproducts of intensively ungreen farming.

Not all farmers do it this way. Winterage is an older, more long-lived tradition that is being celebrated this weekend in the Burren. I was there in 2019, when a teenage boy from a visiting choir sang Edelweiss in a small church as part of the celebration. The familiar lyrics from The Sound of Music were suddenly piercingly new, a love song to a bond with nature, the noticing and loving of the smallest scrap of it.

On winterage weekend, the Community Cattle Drive sees hundreds of people following a herd of Burren cattle up to higher ground. It’s a slow hike. Time falls away when you lean on a hazel stick and listen to the chat and laughter and the animals calmly ambling. You are walking in the footsteps of bronze age people. Winterage is possible because the limestone bedrock absorbs the summer’s heat and releases it slowly over the winter. Low-intensity grazing of the fields allows the wildflowers to flourish. A landscape is held in balance, and people, plants and animals thrive in a beautiful healthy ecosystem.

We are rattling around in the most lethally misguided of cultural ideas: that nature is ours for the taking

Matthijs Schouten was a young teenager, just 16 when he went to university. The first sentence the Dutch ecology professor heard from his biology lecturer still rings in his head. “Ladies and gentleman students,” his teacher said, “you have to realise that we’ve entered a global ecological crisis.” Schouten turned 71 last month. We celebrated the milestone on Inis Oírr, where winds from Storm Agnes’s coat tails quenched all his birthday candles before the cake even made it to the doorway of Tigh Ned. I was privileged to be part of a group of people brought together by the Burrenbeo Trust to spend a week with Schouten for an eco-retreat in a landscape he believes provides one of the world’s most profound teaching spaces.


Schouten encouraged us to amble over karst and hummock without a destination in mind, letting small natural things call our attention. He suggested turning the information we had just heard into a story so it would bed in. We were a small herd soaking up the warmth of the week, the torrents of rain and wisdom in dripping hazel woods, backs pressed against the lee of a bronze stone fort to hear about history, geology, philosophy, spirituality, about the links between Brehon laws and future rights for nature. The Burren can help teach us how to survive this “global ecological crisis”, Schouten believes, and he has seen its magic pierce people’s hearts and lead them to life-changing decisions. We talked about that heart space, the emotional shift that will move us to safe ground as a species. We know the information in our heads but until we feel it in our hearts we are rattling around in the most lethally misguided of cultural ideas: that nature is ours for the taking.

Schouten’s Celtic studies teacher was at his shoulder in spirit for the week. She was there beside him as he recounted fables they had translated at her kitchen table. My grandfather was at mine. He was a man who loved the Burren more than anywhere on the planet. Once he told me stories all the way home about trees and rocks and stone stiles as we walked back from a fishing trip on a lake more than four decades ago. That love and reverence for places in nature, and our bonds with them, are touching distance away.

Towards the end of the week we finished with the Heaney poem about the flaggy shore. Many big buffeting winds gather force ahead. They can blow our hearts shut or blow them open. Take time to get to this year’s winterage if you can, especially if you farm and are fearful about transitioning to a way of farming more in harmony with our place in the natural world. There’s a community of inspiring people in the Burrenbeo Trust team and the family of friends and supporters who will walk a small herd up a hill. They have a wealth of advice, practical projects and farming peers to get you started on the path.