By Heather Beaton
Within the hills of the Western Carpathian Mountains of Romania, some of the last traditionally managed hay meadows of Europe are still worked by local farmers.
In Romania, most farmers still use the long-handled scythe of a design particular to the country. There’s a single stem, long, narrow blade and a lone handle which comes out at right angles halfway up the stem. The scythes are effective, easy to use and very efficient. Emil, our host, Monica’s father, was a machine with his – and yes, I am aware that this metaphor may not be the most welcome. But on these high, steep hay meadows which are interspersed with growing dog rose, hawthorn and walnuts, all of which are to be retained, the sensitivity of the scythe comes into its own, beating the mechanical machinery at their own game.
Emil was able to cover ground quickly, and though he appeared drenched in sweat, the smooth motion, and the slow pace made the whole process appear natural and easy. My own attempt at scything was nice, and I would have enjoyed continuing with the process, but more practice was required to try and work with the same efficiency that Emil seemed to achieve without effort.
The cut hay, which is a coarse mix of herbs with few grasses, needs to be turned to dry, and once done will be transported closer to the farmstead to be built into a stack. In some locales, tractors may be used for this, in others, horses. However, in some areas the steep and narrow paths mean the hay must be transported by human-held sledges, one person at either end. From there, the hay is piled carefully onto a tripod frame, built around a single pole which, once the stack is complete, will stand proud above it all. The hay can last as such through a winter and into the summer of the following year.
In high mountainous areas, the structure can be stabilised by the addition of more poles hanging down the ‘roof’ of the stack which act as weights to prevent the collapse of the whole pile. As we travelled about Romania, one thing that fascinated me was the variety of shapes of the stacks, in some places tall and narrow, and in others squatter and wider. But all followed the same internal structure, and retained a warmth of summer within. The stacks will provide for the animals through the winter, but they’ll also provide habitat for hibernating insects and animals such as small mammals. Thus, the value of these structures cannot be overstated.
The population of these farming communities is growing older, as younger adults are leaving the countryside for jobs elsewhere both within Romania and within the EU as a whole. The roads to and from the hillside villages are rough, incredibly rough, and this makes the distance even more insurmountable. I doubt anyone feels able to just nip up to the farm to help Grandmother for an afternoon.
This leaves a problem for the farmers, who all seem to be proud of their traditions and ways of life, and all appear to be happy with the subsistence farming they participate in. The younger generations, however, do not want to be working seven days a week, toiling on the farm, when they could have what most of us take for granted: regular working hours, paid holidays and reliable wages.
Work on the meadows is made more difficult as well as Romania has, unusually compared to the rest of Europe, managed not to lose its keystone animals. We saw evidence of damage to a hay meadow perpetuated by wild boar. The wallow pool may be fascinating to an entomologist who would love to see such natural processes in the UK, but in Romania this casual destruction of someone’s hay is all to frequent and treated with nothing more than a shrug which speaks of despairing acceptance.
Living alongside animals which can have a negative impact is not the romantic fairy tale of mutual understanding, it’s calves turned inside out by bears, it’s crops lost to wild boar and it’s another spoke in the wheel of hard work which farmers in Romania must bear. That one’s crops can be lost so readily is damaging to morale, perhaps.
The hay meadows face many difficulties in a changing Romania. No one can halt the tide of industrialisation, especially if it makes life easier for an aging population. Romanians are not living in a museum, and they must be allowed to change in the same way as we all do. However, the Apuseni mountains – the name translates into Sunset Mountains – feel like they’re on the brink of change, and that change could lead to a complete loss of hay meadow culture. And, as with so many of these things, Europe may not realise the value of this place before it becomes lost to history.