The Burren: a general intro


I’m just back from a fantastic six day trip to the Burren in western Ireland with Wildlife Travel. Though I knew a little about the Burren before I began hitting the guide books and the internet – particularly in connection with its high number of orchid species and the Burren Green moth Calamia tridens which in the British Isles is found only in the Burren – nothing prepared me properly for the dramatic hills, the palette of colours, and the wide range of quality habitats found there.

Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna throughout our stay, we were right in the heart of the Burren itself. Within a fairly small area – and all within easy reach of Lisdoonvarna – lies the stunning beauty of the limestone pavements with their (in European terms) unique assemblage of plants crowded into the grikes (the cracks between the slabs of limestone); turloughs (the seasonal ‘lakes’ that mostly drain away in summer); sand dunes, pastures, meadows, and hazel woodland; the towering sea cliffs of Moher with their colonies of auks; and the beautiful Aran Islands (Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer) which lie just off the coast in the mouth of Galway Bay.

the burren

the burren
Looking from the top of Corkscrew Hill towards Galway Bay

the burren
A typical road in the countryside

Over five days we found around 200 species of vascular plants (from orchids to ferns and the striking Bloody Cranesbill and Spring Gentian), some sixty species of birds (including Black Guillemot, Peregrine, Cuckoo, and Dipper), eight Odonata (including five damselfies and my first ever Hairy Dragonfly), and a wide range of other invertebrates from Transparent Burnet and Pyrausta sanguinalis to Small Blue, Water Scorpion, Bog Hoverfly, the longhorn beetle Strangalia/Leptura quadrifasciata, and the sawfly Tenthredo temulosa.

Never far from the coast, the Burren is named from the Gaelic for a ‘rocky place’ and at first sight appears a rather harsh and barren landscape. Perhaps in the winter it is indeed a bleak location (when the rain rolled in on the last day of our trip it certainly took on a more monochrome and wild character compared with when the sun was out and the land is speckled with vibrant colour) but, looking closer, this was one of the most memorable and beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen! I’d go back in a shot given the chance (and, boy, do I hope I get the chance…). On top of that, of course, are castles, dolmens, churches and holy crosses – and (genuinely) some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met (Dermot Dooley who ran the B&B we stayed at, Caherleigh House, is everything you’d want from a ‘landlord’ and more).

the burren limestone pavement

the burren limestone pavement
Limestone pavement at Poll Salloch

the burren limestone pavement

the burren limestone pavement
Below Slieve Carran

The day before we arrived in the Burren, Ireland experienced what many weather reporters were describing as ‘a month’s rain in just two days’. Blown in by very powerful winds, the rain could have ruined the trip but – and while I have no doubt it was purely good fortune – almost miraculously it stopped the morning we woke up and only started again on our final afternoon. So much water falling did however mean that the many turloughs in the area – lakes that would normally fill up in the winter and disappear over the summer as they drain away through swallow holes and underground streams formed by the dissolution of carbonates from the underlying rocks – remained very high. Some of the special ‘turlough-side’ flora we were looking for was under water therefore, but the lakes are a very attractive feature nonetheless.

the burren turlough
Lough Bunny, a turlough

One habitat I hadn’t realised was so close and so important was sea cliffs. The sheer (and guano spattered) Cliffs of Moher are apparently one of Ireland’s top visitor attractions (shame on me for not knowing that before I began to research the trip!) and are a designated UNESCO Geo Park. They rise over 200m high at their highest point and their ledges are home to one of the major colonies of cliff nesting seabirds in Ireland (boat trips from Doolin Harbour regularly sail right alongside the cliffs and offer spectacular views of the birds). Their importance is underlined by their designation as a Special Protection Area for Birds under the EU Birds Directive in 1986 and as a Refuge for Fauna in 1988. Crowded with auks, Kittiwakes, and Fulmars, the surrounding area is also good for littoral plants, and the Atlantic Edge Exhibition in the Interpretative Centre is well worth a visit.

the cliffs of Moher

the cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher, from the land (top) and the water

Another ‘top visitor attraction’ is the Aran Islands. Doolin Harbour is again the starting place for trips, which are operated by a gaggle of ferry companies who loudly vie for custom on the harbour front. We visited Inisheer (or Inis Oirr, which is somewhat like the Scilly Isles’s St Martin’s for anyone who’s been there), a flattish island with many stone walls, small hay meadows, and – on a good day – spectacular views to the other islands, Galway Bay, and the Connemara Mountains.

The very local Wild (or Babbington’s) Leek is one of the island’s specialities, but highlight of the visit for most of us was finding a large colony of Bee Orchids part-hidden in Marram Grass (photographs in a later post). Ferries are regular throughout the day, and Inisheer is a lovely place for a gentle stroll – and for a good lunch in the local tea house or pubs.

doolin and inisheer
Looking from the harbour on Inisheer, and botanising on the island

Inisheer, looking to the Connemara Mountains

I’ll be posting photos of the plants and wildlife over the next week or so, including a selection of the many orchids we saw, but in the meantime I’ll finish with a photo of Leamaneh Castle.

leamaneh castle
Leamaneh Castle, the Burren

One of the many ruined buildings that are scattered around the Burren (there are many modern and/or completely rebuilt buildings too, in case that gives the wrong impression), Leamaneh is on private land and is not open to visitors. Even from the road though it is clearly two buildings in one: an Irish tower house built around 1480 (probably by Toirdelbhach Donn MacTadhg Ó Briain, King of Thomond, one of the last of the High Kings of Ireland), and a second construction added in 1640 to make a fortified house by Conor O’Brien and his wife, Máire ní Mahon, one of the most infamous women in Irish folklore.


All photographs copyright Charlie Moores/Talking Naturally 2012


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

One Comment

  1. Laurie Allan says:

    Aaah, the ‘Burren Assemblage’ – brings back memories of 25 years ago at about the same time as your visit. I think you have to go to the Alps at about 2,000 metres for the nearest similar group of plants. Coupled with elements of the ‘Lusitanian’ flora makes this area a ‘must’ for anybody who considers themselves a field botanist, it’s like the Holy Grail and Mecca in one! Carboniferous Limestone from sea level to 2,000 feet, makes the remnants of our Lakeland and Pennine reserves look very tame indeed……

    It’s said of the Burren that there is not enough soil to bury a man, not enough wood to hang one and not enough water to drown someone!

    ATB and glad you enjoyed the area -

    Laurie -

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