The Bleak But Beautiful Burren National Park

The bleakness of the Burren.
Jared I. Lenz Photography / Getty Images

The Burren National Park in County Clare is one of six national parks in Ireland and may be the most desolate, often being described as a "moonscape". The word Irish word "boíreann" literally means "a rocky place" (and there are several areas called "burren" all over Ireland). How well this name fits the Burren National Park is evident - the lack of soil cover and exposed limestone make the area seem bleak and bare. This, however, does not hold true upon further inspection. Take a trip to the stone-strewn park to learn more about this unique national wonder.

History

Today, the lunar landscape that characterizes the park is what draws people to the natural setting. However, the area once looked a lot more like the Bahamas than a deserted field of stones.

The limestone deposits that are found in the Burren were formed over 300 million years ago when Ireland was covered by a warm, tropical sea. The limestone is actually filled with coral fossils and it is broken fossils that make up much of the deposits. When Ireland collided with Europe, the rocks folded and tilted. The following ice ages helped to shape the limestone further, rounding the edges and expanded the fissures between the rock formations.

Burren National Park Visitor Center

There is not currently a visitor's center at the national park, but the Burren Centre can be found in Kilfenora.

What to See

The Burren region is world-famous for its bleak landscape and, surprisingly perhaps, flora. During the summer months, visitors experience a colorful diversity of flowering plants within the fragile ecosystem (and often hidden from plain sight). Arctic and alpine plants thrive alongside with Mediterranean species, lime- and acid-loving plants grow side by side and even woodland plants can be found, despite there not being a tree anywhere nearby. All this on land that appears to consist entirely of rock and nothing but rock.

The ecosystem of the Burren National Park is extremely complex, a mosaic of habitats that are contrasting yet complementing each other, hard to isolate. Around 75% of all plant species found in Ireland are actually present in the Burren, including no less than 23 of the 27 native orchid species.

The reason? Apparently, smooth at first sight, the limestone pavement areas consist of "clints" and "grykes". Clints are slab-like, flat areas. Grykes are the fissures and cracks that run through the clints. Soil can accumulate in the grykes, sheltered from the wind. These accumulations provide enough anchorage and nutrients for plants. Though there is a wide variety of plant life to be found, most vegetation in the Burren is stunted like bonsai - due to a combined lack of space, nutrients, water and soil working together with the wind and grazing animals to keep everything at a low level.

Some grassland can be found on terraces with a thin soil layer, between raised areas of limestone pavement and on glacial deposits. These grasslands provide a mixture of species that are normally found in a variety of different climates ranging from alpine to Meditteranean. Also, the altitudes seem to be mixed up in the Burren - spring gentians normally grow high up in the Alps, but in the Burren you can find them at sea level.

Remember, the area is a protected national park. While the vegetation is incredible, do not pick any of the plants or flowers you see in the Burren.

Most of the mammal life in the park is nocturnal. Fauna in the Burren National Park consists of badgers, foxes, stoats, otters, pine marten, squirrels, mink, rats, mice, bats, and shrews, you will also see the occasional hare or rabbit. Bears are, however, long extinct; good news for the feral goats that roam throughout the area.

Bird watchers will try to spot all 98 species of birds actually recorded within the park - from peregrine falcons, kestrels and merlins to finches and tits. Wildfowl are using the Burren as a winter quarter, with whooper swans making the most dramatic entrance.

Size of the Park

The Burren National Park stretches over approximately 1,500 hectares of land, the burren itself is larger (approximately 250 square kilometres or 1% of Ireland's landmass).

Location

The Burren National Park proper is located in the south-eastern corner of the general "Burren" area in County Clare in the west of Ireland. This part of the Burren was bought by the Irish government, for the sole purpose of nature conservation, and continued public access.

The highest point in the Burren National Park is the peak of Knockanes at 207 meters.

Getting There

The Burren National Park has defined borders but these are not always well marked or highly visible. Some villages close to the park are Cloon and Corofin. If you plan to stay overnight, you may want to head for the town of Ennis, which is slightly larger.

From Corofin the R476 leads to Kilnaboy, where a right turn and another 3 miles (5 kilometers) along the road will lead to a crossroads with a small lay-by. From here you will have to follow the "crag road" into the Burren National Park on foot. Be careful of traffic! In summer the Burren National Park can be very busy. Please avoid parking on the limestone pavement, which is a part of the geological wonders inside the protected area.

Amenities

There are no restrooms, restaurants or shelters inside the Burren National Park so pack what you will need for the duration of your visit. You will find a number of cafés and shops in the villages dotted around the Burren.

Other National Parks in Ireland

 

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