The Winterage

Transhumance in the Burren

The first in a trio of Dark Kitchen winter posts. In a time of mass industrialisation and disconnection from the foods we eat, engaging with ancestral farming practices can tether us to a more nourishing present (and future). Transhumance guide and food conservationist Max Jones follows the traditional cattle drive that has sculpted and fed the Burren in the west of Ireland for thousands of years.
works as a transhumance guide, writer, photographer and educator, and is the founder of traditional food conservation project Up There the Last. He runs courses from his Booley in West Cork also leads workshops, talks and tastings internationally to maintain and democratise traditional food preservation techniques.
Every year I join with herders to drive cattle along ancient routes in a form of traditional pastoralism known as transhumance.  I speak and write about this ancestral practice as it offers a profound and immediate connection to the land and earth we tread. Like fishing the traditional salmon nets of the river Blackwater in Ireland or beating the smoked chestnuts of Bagneri in Italy, it is in walking with a stick in hand, guiding cattle along the long-trodden routes that map mountains, where I find deepest meaning. There is a purpose in the immediacy of it all, stepping into a pre-defined role  with a heritage that spans thousands of years. These are long-established processes that evolved to sustain life in a particular place, through the repeated, seasonal transformation of that place into food.

Each spring in the prealps of northern Italy, I join the herders of Biella to drive their cattle on foot over 25 kilometres and an elevation of more than a thousand metres to the alpine pasture that looms high above the valley where the herd has spent the winter. Once up there, the cows turn the mountain’s rich flora into milk, which in turn is stabilised into butter and cheese using ancient methods that have nothing to do with enforced chemical use or the rules laid out by the anachronistic Food Safety Authorities.

Then comes the autumn, when those herders and cattle must come off the mountain by the same route they came up before the snows and blizzards of winter, back to the safety of the valley below. This is a beautiful transhumance, as the native breed glows the same reddish brown as the falling leaves of the forests we guide them through, and when we stop to rest, the food that fuels this journey is the cheese and cured meat made from the herd. The mountain gives us the energy we need to make food from that mountain. A powerful, unbroken cycle that dates back to the Bronze Age. This is the real food I am drawn to, unsullied and honest. I bring this piece of Italy down off the mountain to feed me when I climb another in Ireland the following week for the curious reverse transhumance tradition of the Winterage.

The mountain gives us the energy we need to make food from that mountain. A powerful, unbroken cycle that dates back to the Bronze Age.

The Burren in the west of Ireland feels incredibly old. From the flatlands of Clare and Galway, broad, monotone mounds loom in the distance. This limestone territory appears in a steely blue, a dead slate, a pearl grey contrasting with the lowland greens of the fields below, peach yellow and pink at sunrise or polished silver and gold when the rain comes and wets the shimmering mountainside. It can also be bone white, and, on a winter’s sunset, it becomes a lunar desert, lighting up dolmens and erratic boulders that were deposited in the Ice Age by sweeping glaciers, their long shadows rippling and falling into the grykes and clints of the limestone pavement. As you get closer, fields are demarcated by hand-built walls made with pieces of sharp, angular chunks, and dry-piled on top of each other, leaving gaps enough to see through their stony patterns to the other side.  

Gradually the fields themselves take on the same colours of the approaching mountains. The walls strike out over fields of rock in broken-toothed lines that follow the swirling waves and folds of Mullaghmore, Slieve Rua and Knockanes, enormous tiered cakes of limestone whose contours make me think of sandcastles being pulled back into the sea by the tide.

This remarkable pasture is characterised mainly by the smooth fissures and grykes in the limestone pavement that have been gently eroded by rain, with smooth channels patterning the stone into what look like the vertebrae of sea mammals. In fact, as you run your hand over the stone you can make out recognisable marine fossils. Then, looking up at the mountains, you realise that the entire landscape is an ocean bed made solid with the bones of sea creatures over millions of years. 

During the summer months, the Burren becomes a worldwide destination for botanists and geologists. Down in the cracks of the grykes and fissures, between huge limestone clints, ancient seeds have been able to flower. For all the barrenness of the landscape, the Burren holds around 75% of Ireland’s biodiversity. 

Crossing into the Burren, the herd moves into the uplands

The Burren, or in Irish Boirinn meaning the ‘rocky place’, is a rare habitat, and a priority for protection under the EU Habitats Directive. Now a Special Area of Conservation, where initially the approach would be to come in and protect the area, usually by paying the often-vilified farmers not to work the precious land. 

But the Burren’s biodiversity is actually a result of the farming tradition of transhumance that has remained unbroken for 6,000 years.

There are hundreds of farms scattered across the Burren whose cattle, move onto the limestone winterage pasture

There are hundreds of farms scattered across the Burren whose cattle, having spent the summer in the green lowlands, move onto the seemingly harsh limestone winterage pasture to spend the winter grazing. It seems counterintuitive but the winterage actually offers ideal conditions for the cattle, as well as allowing a rare opportunity for the animals to graze outside throughout the whole year when usually they would spend the winter indoors against the wind and wet, eating silage. On the winterage, this is a biodiverse and wild pasture that has not been fertilised.

There is so much rain during the winter months that the lowlands often become flooded, whereas the winterage offers excellent drainage as the water escapes through the ancient grykes, keeping the mountainside dry and offering constant dry lie conditions for the cattle. The Burren’s limestone mass, having absorbed the sun through the summer, radiates heat that makes it livable for the suckling herds. The water that doesn’t immediately drain will pool in large bowls eroded into the stone leaving constant supplies of water to drink, and the cattle feed on the dead grasses and vegetation like purple moor grass, which would normally smother some 700 species of plant like gentians or orchids which in the summer have a renewed access to light in order to grow.

The erratic rocks and walls offer shelter, and I have even been lucky enough to glimpse deep into the past when a handful of cattle used a mighty dolmen for a wind-break

 

The erratic rocks and walls offer shelter, and I have been lucky enough to glimpse deep into the past when a handful of cattle used a mighty dolmen for a wind-break   –  a prehistoric monument that has revealed how humans lived on the Burren some 5,800 years ago,  farming cattle, sheep and goats, as well as growing grain crops. In this moment the only thing that separates me in time are the plastic tags in the animals’ ears. I have also experienced this moment in a remote corner of the Alps, with a man using wood and clay tools, making illegal butter and cheese from his undeclared herd.

The winterage is a brilliant show of human common sense and frugality. Even today the purpose remains the same, as the farmers want the animals to get as much grazing over winter as possible, cutting housing and feeding costs, usually leaving them on this wild pasture from October to April which echoes the intuitively sensible approach to grazing above the treeline in the Alps for the summer. 

At the end of October, around Samhain, a weekend is dedicated to celebrate this tradition. I join the winterage having just returned from the desalpa transhumance in Biella the week before, with my cheese in tow.

 

Gathering before the winterage

The celebration begins at a lowland farm, the coordinates of which are released the day before the cattle drive. People arrive at a field and make their way onto the farm, collecting sturdy hazel herding sticks that have been gathered from the woodland and scrub that surrounds the winterage. Usually around 12 or 15 animals make up these suckler herds of mostly continental breeds, with the farmers and their families gathering around them. The herd is blessed with holy water and set off up the path bordered by the classic limestone walls, onto their winterage. The farmer leads the herders, standing just behind the cattle, walking slowly and calling to keep them in order. 

The walk is slow and steady, winding up the long-trodden path with occasional breaks to rest the herd after a steep climb, blue steam rising from their backs while we wait. The lowland pasture yields to the rocky limestone terrain and the path disappears into the scored crevices of limestone pavement, mottled with tufts of grass or small, hardy ferns, the cattle careful on their feet. 

After perhaps three quarters of an hour the cattle drive is over. Arrived onto the winterage, I turn around and see a line of people and their sticks so long it goes back almost all the way down to the farm. There are hundreds of us walking this ancient route. 

Coming so soon after the Italian transhumance, I think of the cultural significance of this relatively short journey. In Italy, we are perhaps 12 herders guiding 40 or so cattle. Here, we are in our hundreds behind a handful of animals, and I can’t help but wonder in these disconnected times how perhaps now, it is the cattle that guide a herd of humans in a journey that has the heart of so many.

Fresh from the transhumance in Italy, I try to be at the front with the cattle as I am used to, actively carrying out the task with my trusty herding stick. Here on the Burren, it is a token role we perform together, with the real herding carried out by the farmer. Dropping back and chatting with these people I realise, between breaths, that everyone here has a connection to cattle and farming. Most conversations sparked by the walk are with parents or grandparents, remembering the identity of  family and the small, manageable home herds of around 10 cattle they would live with growing up. 

I listen to how milk and meat tasted differently to how it does now, and I am convinced that this is mainly because of the added value gained when we know where it has come from: the village butcher, the local creamery. How butter was once made, sitting around at home with the family, passing around an old biscuit tin filled with cream with a silver spoon inside, churning it by hand between bouts of laughter. How the buttermilk was delicious and sour because the unpasteurised cream from the tiny herd, collected over several days, would have fermented naturally.

There is a profound appreciation for the winterage and the farmers who keep this unbroken farming tradition. It represents symbiosis and community, the small herd on which a family would depend and it connects us to an authentic time before we became too efficient and lost the ability to remember food’s emotional value. 

Driving the cattle in the winterage

There is a feeling of security and belonging to the rhythm of the drive, the timeless image of the animals against the great limestone mountains that can be seen by everyone in the distance, so far away. It reminds me of the bells that the cattle wear in Italy for their cacophonous journey up and down the mountain and how everyone within earshot, even though they may not even see the herd, become subconsciously part of the transhumance that signals the beginning of summer and the beginning of winter. It punctuates the year, and we can less readily forget that when we eat the food made of that place, we become it. 

In this way the transhumance is for everyone, contextualising us all. Unchanged and familiar, it offers a real-time connection to ways that have successfully sustained life for thousands of years. This is precisely their value – these ways are not past, we are connected to them by these ancient farming practices that still exist in exactly the same way in the now. This is why I try and champion them, giving them more space and value, because we stand to relearn so much.

Hungry at the top of this rocky place, I cut into my wheel of cheese from Biella and it feels right to share the fragrant mountain amongst the winterage farmers and human herd of the barren, life-giving Burren.

 

All photographs by Max Jones

 

Max in action in the Alps (photo: Heather  Binnie)

Max Jones runs courses from his Booley in West Cork also leads workshops, talks and tastings internationally to maintain and democratise traditional food preservation techniques.

Join him in May 2024 for the Italian transhumance, or sign up to Up There the Last for his heritage recipe archive on Substack.

 

 

 

 

 

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