Winterage: The rural Irish custom to protect farmers' animals

A few sprinkles of holy water and a short prayer. That's how this lesser-known autumn custom in southwestern Ireland begins.

Every year at the end of October, cattle and some enthusiastic onlookers head to the rugged landscape of the Burren.

For the next five months, the animals will wander and graze over the stony hills. It's an ancient farming practice that has turned into an annual celebration, known as ‘Winterage’.

The local animals have a large part to play in upkeeping the biodiversity of the area. Dr Brendan Dunford, an environmental consultant, explained how this works.

"The cattle spend the whole winter harvesting dead grass and vegetation from the Burren. In the spring when the cattle come back down, the sunlight can penetrate the ground flora and all these beautiful gentians and orchids can pop out unhindered and flower and seed for the rest of the summer.

He added that the Burren “is a botanical metropolis with lots of plants from different parts of the world, Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean packed into this landscape but dependent on that farming tradition."

While most farmers might fret about sufficient food for their cattle on seemingly barren mountains, it's never been a problem in the Burren.

John O’Brien is one local cattle owner and farmer. He explains that "there is warmth coming from the limestone and there are valleys and pathways and plenty shelter and even on the coldest days you would think the cattle would be cold but they're not because the heat comes off the limestone."

The cows will remain on the mountain until February, and they will be checked on them every couple of days.