Environment

Take on Nature: Bear bones of species extinction

Poulnabrone Dolmen in Co Clare's Burren area is one of Ireland's most photographed location

WALKING up the hillside, along a track across cracked rocky countryside, past flowering orchids, birdfoot trefoil and daisies, stands the Poulnabrone dolmen.

Although it is my first visit to this part of the Burren there is an immediate recognition factor, not just of the 5,000-year-old portal tomb but of the landscape in which it stands.

This has less to do with déjà vu than the fact that it is one of the most photographed locations and structures in Ireland.

Formed beneath the surface of a tropical sea more than 300 million years ago, the limestone rock has been cracked and warped over the vast period of time since then, most recently by the massive glaciers which troughed over it during the last ice age which ended a mere 12,000 years ago.

Over time it became a rich and fertile landscape covered in forest that was home to wolves and bears until the arrival of humans.

The first people here were hunter gatherers but subsequent settlers arriving around 4,000 years ago were farmers who began clearing the land.

You can still see the dry stone walls they built snaking through the landscape but the land they harvested was over-farmed which led to erosion and the once fertile soil being washed away over millennia by rainfall.

It is a hard lesson that humanity has still not quite learned.

The region's unique climate means that it has a slightly higher temperature than the rest of Ireland, although this does not necessarily mean it is drier, as I discovered when my pop-up tent struggled to perform its fundamental purpose of existence by providing a dry shelter as the rains lashed in off the Atlantic.

The still-fertile soil packed into the cracks in the limestone rock and the lack of farming means that the Burren is home to 70 per cent of the species of flora that grow in Ireland.

Some of these species are not found anywhere else in Ireland and are more typical of the Mediterranean or the high Alps.

Of the 28 types of orchid that grow in Ireland, 23 of them can be found in this unique rock landscape on the west coast of Co Clare, including some which are unique to the region.

Grazing on this rich flora close to Poulnabrone dolmen were two of the largest hares I have ever seen and they seemed quite unperplexed by my presence, letting me get within a few metres before thudding off into one of the many cracks in the ground.

Aillwee Cave in Co Clare's spectacular Burren

This is a porous landscape and below the Burren is the Aillwee Cave complex where the landscape below ground is as spectacular as it is above.

An underground waterfall, plunging chasms, dark caverns and intriguing twisted rock formations are among its highlights.

And there is a poignant moment when you come to a chamber in which clusters of bones and a skull can be seen. These are the remains of brown bears, which were once native to Ireland.

The skull has been carbon dated and is around 10,400 years old, but other bones are more recent, with some 4,000 years old, suggesting the caves were used by successive generations of bear.

It is not sure when the Irish bear finally became extinct, with some estimates suggesting they could have still been alive around 2,500 years ago.

Again, human activity is probably to blame for their demise. Many of the bear bones found in Ireland have cut marks on them, suggesting that they had been caught and carved up for food and fur by ancient hunters.

In addition to that, massive deforestation to make way for agriculture stripped Ireland of the bear's natural habitat.

It is a hard lesson that humanity has still not quite learned.

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Environment