HNV Farming & Biodiversity

Aran Islands (Ireland)

Aran Islands

Natura site names: Inishmore Island, Inishmaan Island & Inisheer Island (all SAC)
Natura Code: IE000213, IE000212, IE001275

The three islands of Aran, Inis Mór (eng. Inishmore), Inis Meáin (eng. Inishmaan) and Inis Oírr (eng. Inisheer) are a fragmented reef of the Burren region of northwest County Clare in Ireland, forming a breakwater across the mouth of Galway Bay. Irish is the first language of the people, making the islands a strong Gaeltacht area. The type of agricultural practised has created a High Nature Value system containing a mixture of rare Irish and European habitat types including Orchid rich grassland/Calcareous grassland (6210), Lowland hay meadows (6510), Limestone pavement (8240), European dry heaths (4030) and Machair (21A0) Over 75% of the total land area is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive.

Text: P. McGurn
© Photos: P. McGurn

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The thousands of kilometres of dry-stonewalling enclosing a mosaic of tiny fields give the islands a unique landscape appearance.


Small, highly fragmented farms form the basis of most holdings on the islands with a typical farm size on Inis Oírr of 6 ha, 11 ha on Inis Meáin, and 20 ha on Inis Mór (average farm size Ireland: 32 ha).

Cattle of Aran Island


The cattle production system is unique in that the mild climate and soil conditions allow animals to be outwintered, sometimes supplemented with hay or concentrates.

Cattle of Aran Island


The farming system requires a high degree of local expertise ensuring a sufficient grass bank is accumulated during periods of poor growth. These factors also limit the number of grazing animals a farm can support. Typical stocking rates are less than 0.5LU/ha.

Small scale tillage

Small scale tillage

Traditional farming practices, e.g. in the form of rye cultivation for thatching, has maintained suitable habitats for a number of rare and threatened arable weed communities.

Arable weeds

Rye crop

Weed species like Darnel (Lolium temulentum), Smooth Brome (Bromus racemosus), Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and Bristle Oat (Avena strigosa) are all listed in the Irish Red Data Book. Prior to their discovery on the Aran Islands, some of these species were believed extinct in Ireland.

Field structure

The small field structure and stony soils limit the use of machinery. So most of the work is still completed using hand tools.



Drinking water for the cattle has to be collected in man-made structures.

Dry calcareous grasslands, Code 6210

Limestone pavement

The network of small, stone-walled fields which dissect the Island encloses an area of limestone pavement interspersed with fine examples of species-rich, dry calcareous grasslands. Typical plants are Blue Moor-grass (Sesleria albicans), Eyebright (Euphrasia spp.), Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia), Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris), Knapweeds (Centaurea nigra and C. scabiosa), Orchids (Orchidaceae) and Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).

Limestone Pavement, Code 8240

Limestone Pavement

Limestone pavements are characterised by blocks of bare limestone which are separated by pockets with a thin cover of rendzina. This soil is combined with a mixture of sand and seaweed to form a unique manmade soil cover, built up over the centuries.

Machair, Code 21A0


Machair is a complex sand dune formation that is globally restricted to the northwest coasts of Ireland and Scotland. The Aran Islands are the most southerly examples of this priority habitat. It supports a range of rare plant and bird species.

Purple milk Vetch (Astragalus danicus)

Purple milk Vetch

This predominantly species of continental Europe grows on machair close to the sea on Inis Mór and Inis Meain, its only location in Ireland.

Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)

Spring Gentian

One of the many colourful plants of the limestone pavement grasslands.

Hoary rockrose (Helianthemum canum)

Hoary rockrose

An endangered species of dry and alpine heath habitats on the islands, which is common only locally in parts of western Ireland.

Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)


The islands are an important stronghold of this endangered corvid with several breeding pairs

Autumn lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)

Autumn lady’s tresses

This small and rather inconspicuous orchid can be found in semi-natural dry grasslands.


Coastal dune systems are important breeding places for different tern species with Arctic, Little and Sandwich tern occurring on the Aran Island.

European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2024/05/18
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