The world-famous Burren. You learn of its uniqueness in school, the importance of its flora and fauna.

It has won a plethora of awards. Among them, one of Lonely Planet’s top places to visit in 2021. It attracts over one million visitors each year.

Undoubtedly, a feather in the cap of Ireland’s tourism industry.

So, what about those managing this renowned landscape?

Well, currently the Burren’s farmers are grappling with the loss of their hugely successful, tailor-made agri-environmental scheme, the Burren Programme. It was replaced by the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

At its peak, the Burren Programme, which started out as a LIFE project, had 350 participating farmers (80% of those in the target area) covering 26,000ha. Not to be outdone by the tourism side of the house, in 2017 the groundbreaking project won an award for being the best ever LIFE project in the European Union (EU).

The Burren Programme stemmed from Dr Brendan Dunford’s Teagasc Walsh Fellowship research. He and his colleague Dr Sharron Parr were presented with the award by the European Commissioner for Environment at the time, Karmenu Vella.

Fast forward to 2022. Dunford and Parr resigned amid concerns over the environmental integrity of the Burren Programme’s replacement scheme under the most recent CAP, ACRES, and how it would work for farmers.

The Irish Farmers Journal met with two of these farmers in the Burren recently to get their views from the ground.

Burren suckler farmers, Michael Davoren from Carran and Michael Collins from Kilfenora were both in the Burren Programme and are now in ACRES co-operation.

ACRES co-operation is the stream of the scheme for eight specific geographical locations along the west coast, one of which is the Burren and Aran Islands.

As mentioned, the Burren Programme was a tailor-made scheme. A number of other agri-environmental schemes around the country were subsequently based on the Burren Programme’s blueprint.

Davoren was hugely influential in getting buy-in from farmers for the project.

He is scathing of it being wound down and replaced with ACRES, which he says is “a proper disaster” for the Burren for a number of reasons. Not least being that they cannot do work under the scheme, such as the clearing of scrub which is important for preserving habitats, without approval from the Department of Agriculture.

It is now 16 months since they applied to do work under ACRES and they are still waiting for approval. Previously, this was sanctioned by the Burren Programme office in Carran within days.

Michael Davoren with his cattle in The Burren, Co Clare. \ Eamon Ward

Davoren describes ACRES as “a history lesson”, owing to the delayed information and responses farmers are waiting for from the Department.

“We can’t do anything until we get permission from the Department of Agriculture or we’ll be penalised. We’re in the second year of the scheme and no one has permission got yet. We put in the application [in] December 2022. We were told we might get permission by the end of this summer.

“Ourselves, along with many other farmers, applied for work last December 2023. We’ve been told by our advisers we will be penalised if we go near any of that work until the Department of Agriculture, not the local team in Carran, give us permission to do it.

“The scores from the fields last year that were supposed to help us increase the score for this year, sure we haven’t them yet. It’s an absolute and utter disaster,” Davoren says.

‘In reverse’

Adding to Davoren’s point, Collins explains that you can already see the Burren landscape changing and deteriorating because the work farmers were doing under the Burren Programme has stopped.

“Since the Burren Programme went, the landscape has deteriorated. Scrub is not being treated and things like that. You can see the difference. It’s going to go back, we’re in reverse,” Collins says.

Bouncing off each other’s points and clearly very passionate about their local landscape, Davoren adds that their work under the Burren Programme is being undone rapidly.

“It took almost 20 years to get to where we are. The Burren will be brought back to where it was 20 years ago in five, six or seven years,” he explains.

The Burren farmers also highlight how they are at a financial loss due to being in ACRES. As well as having their payments delayed alongside the other 46,000 farmers in tranche one of the scheme, they previously were eligible to be in both ACRES’ predecessor, the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) and the Burren Programme.

“We’re back, on average, €6,000 or €7,000 from what we had in the Burren Programme. And we have no GLAS, which is a €12,000 cut,” Davoren says.


On whether or not they would like to see the Burren Programme reinstated, Davoren says it’s not a want but a need.

“It’s not we would like to; environmentally, it’s essential.”

Both Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State with responsibility for Biodiversity Pippa Hackett come in for severe criticism from Davoren for allowing the scheme to be closed down during their tenure.

He also feels losing the Burren Programme is a cause that has been overlooked by the environmental lobby.

“What astounds me is the silence from the environmentalists. Why isn’t there uproar? We’re told the Burren is so valuable, the flora and the fauna is so unique, and yet the scheme is closed down and no one says, ‘Isn’t that terrible?’”

Local economy

As well as the loss to farmers, Collins explains that there is also a loss to the local economy. Under the Burren Programme, often farmers opted to employ a local contractor to clear scrub. The scheme brought €1m per annum to Burren farmers, which was circulated in the local economy.

“Farmers embraced the scheme and it worked out. It was brilliant. A lot of money that was made, it stayed locally,” Collins says.

Michael Collins feeding cows on his winterage.

“You would have lads who maybe got a bit of seasonal work out of it clearing scrub, then the local guy making the wrought-iron Burren LIFE gates. It was brilliant for north Clare.

“The biggest tragedy of all, I think, is the young farmers, the young lads,” he continues. “They’re not going to do the carry-on we went on with without the Burren Programme. With it, there was a bit of an incentive there for young lads to stay at home.

“If he had a bit of a work ethic, if he was staying at home, he could go out and cut a bit of scrub, could do a small bit of contracting or work like that. That’s gone from us.

“The young lads are not going to stay at it and it’s only a few auld lads like ourselves left now.”

How it worked

To emphasise their points, Davoren and Collins explain how the Burren Programme worked for local farmers. It was a results-based payment based on scorecards. They got the actions needed to bring up their scores approved by the local office in Carran and conducted them, Davoren explains.

“You got your three or four sentences, telling you for example do summer grazing, cut scrub, tidy up the water spring or whatever it was.

“Three or four sentences and you went off, you did it and the score went up. With ACRES we won’t get that bit of advice until July [2024], if then, for 2023,” he says.

Collins adds that there were also no penalties under the Burren Programme.

“There was no penalty. If it didn’t get better, you just didn’t get paid for it and you’d do better the next time. Scores went up as we went along and the place improved.

“The standard was high. It wasn’t money for nothing, we had to work at it, we had to adapt, we had to change and roll with it. But it was for the better of us all, for nature and for water quality,” he says.

Davoren adds that because the local office approved the measures, things got done quickly. There is still a local office in the Burren, but it no longer sanctions actions, it just gives advice to farmers.

As the two Michaels lament the loss of the Burren Programme, they say most of all it’s “a shame” to see all of the work that was done over the years for local nature dwindling away at a time when farmers are under increasing environmental pressure.

About the Burren Programme

Dr Brendan Dunford’s groundbreaking research, which started in the late 1990s, highlighted the need for certain farming practices to change in the Burren, but also the important role farmers play in conserving the Burren’s landscape.

This was the basis of Burren LIFE, the start of a farmer-led agri-environment scheme. The suggestions from Dunford’s initial research came from local farmers themselves.

From 2005 to 2010 it ran as Burren LIFE, funded by the European Commission. From 2010 to 2016, it was known as the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme and, finally, the Burren Programme.

However, its tenure as a whole is still most commonly referred to locally as Burren LIFE.

The Burren Programme period was funded by the Department of Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

In a 2019 interview with this publication on the scheme’s success, Dunford said: “The wrong type of farming can destroy the Burren, but the future of the Burren depends on sustaining the right type of farming.”

Michael Davoren on his farm in the Burren, Co Clare. \ John Kelly

  • The award-winning agri-environment scheme, the Burren Programme, was wound down and replaced with ACRES.
  • Under ACRES, farmers have now been waiting 16 months for approval to carry out environmental measures in the Burren.
  • With 20 years of work done under the Burren Programme as a whole, farmers are saying the Burren is now environmentally “in reverse”.
  • Burren farmers say “it is environmentally essential” that the scheme is reinstated.