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Animal dung reveals secrets of the past

Farmers, not glaciers, created the Burren moonscape.

It had long been assumed that glaciers emoved the top soil from Ireland's Burren but new research has established that, in fact, a forest pines and hazel trees survived long after the Ice Age ended. (De Agostini/Getty Images)

BALLYVAUGHAN, Ireland — The Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland has long delighted tourists and intrigued scientists and botanists.

It consists of 135 square miles of bare limestone hills, its gray and pink rock contrasting with the emerald green fields on its horizons. It had long been assumed that the stripping action of glaciers long ago removed the top soil, and that only the arctic plant life for which the Burren is famous survived. Now new research has established that this "stony place" as the word burren (or boireann) means in Gaelic, was once a forest of pines and hazel trees that survived long after the Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago.

A team from National University of Ireland Galway came to this conclusion by examining ancient cattle and sheep excrement found deep in nearby peat deposits to establish grazing habits. To be more precise, they studied the spores of a fungus found on the animal dung, and were able to draw conclusions about the original plant cover.

Research published in the Journal of Ecology in London and carried out by Michael O’Connell and Ingo Fesser shows that the Burren supported woody vegetation and grasslands from around 1500 B.C. until possibly as late as the 17th century. The trees were cleared or burned by farmers to facilitate cultivation and grazing and the arctic flora that coexisted with the pine and hazel forests survived the clearances.

What the farmers lost through soil erosion is today Ireland’s gain. It has made a small corner of the country an area of spell-binding scenery, composed of terraced limestone rock and cracked pavements underneath which are hidden rivers and large caves.

On a recent drive along the coastal road from the beautiful village of Ballyvaughan in Galway Bay to Fanore on the windswept Atlantic coast, I found tiny orchids and arctic berries in crevasses of the rocks just a few paces from the roadside. I could see wild goats climb the steeper stone ridges.