Romanian Village Farming – Hay Meadows, Leaf Hay and Subsistence Farming – 2017

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Dates of Visit: 22-28th August 2017

Attendees:

Andy Dorin, SNH

Chris Smillie, SRUC

Colin Hardacre, SRUC

Helen Doherty, SNH

Iona Hyde, Woodland Trust Scotland

Kirsty North, SNH

Polly Philpot, Plantlife

Rachel Cloutier

 

Hosts:

Monica Oprean, Satul Verde

Martin Clark, A

 

Purpose of Exchange:

This study tour to Transylvania was supported through EU Erasmus+ funding and organised by Arch. Ltd. The exchange was hosted by Satul Verde in Romania and explored a range of issues relating to subsistence farming in Transylvania, particularly in and around the Apuseni Mountains. The pressures of changing society and possibilities for future management and use of a cultural landscape shaped by centuries of subsistence farming were explored.

Disclaimer:

This report is a personal account of the visit and does not necessarily represent the views of the other participants, Satul Verde, Erasmus + or my employer, Woodland Trust Scotland. Any errors or misinterpretations in my reporting are completely my own.

Focus of Interest:

I am employed by Woodland Trust Scotland as Croft Woodland Project Officer, covering Argyll and Lochaber. I work with crofters and crofting communities to promote woodland creation and management of existing native woodland to deliver a range of benefits including shelter for livestock, wood fuel, improved biodiversity and enhanced amenity. While woodland and forestry management are my main areas of interest and focus of work, the role of subsistence farming and forestry is key to understanding and realising sustainable use of resources in rural communities and reversing population decline in remote areas.

 

Transylvania 22-28th August 2017

In rural and semi-rural Transylvania, hay making is ubiquitous. The distinctive conical hay stacks formed around a central pole can be seen throughout the region covering hillsides and floodplains and even on the smallest patches of grassland.

Haystacks in the Apuseni Mountains

In the valleys and hillsides of the Apuseni Mountains, hay making is at the centre of farming life and goes on all through the summer months with the meadows receiving several cuts, providing hay for a way of life that has existed in these valleys for hundreds of years. The rich biodiversity of Transylvanian meadows and grasslands is still evident, despite our visit to them being towards the end of August, after their final cut of the year. Gentians, carline thistles, scabious, Transylvanian clary, wild thyme, vetchs, clovers and a vast array of other species were all still in flower on the meadow margins and track verges, giving us a glimpse of the spectacle that the meadows must have provided the previous month. The rich biodiversity associated with the meadows could be seen and heard all around us during our visit, particularly invertebrates – the range of grasshoppers and butterflies we saw on one short walk was remarkable. In the mountains, the meadows and grasslands are interspersed with strips of woodland that have been managed to provide a wide array of wood products for these communities for centuries while playing a vital role in erosion control and water management.

Traditional hay meadows with strips of managed woodland in Rimet

The traditional hand scythes that were used to cut hay throughout Transylvania are unsurprisingly being steadily replaced by motorised scythes, although on the steeper slopes, hay is still cut by hand. It seems likely, however, that these steeper meadows will be abandoned in time as decreasing livestock numbers in the valleys require less fodder. Even with the mechanisation of hay cutting, the process is still labour intensive and gathering and making of hay ricks is back-breaking work.

The woodlands, dominated by oak, beech and hornbeam at lower elevations, replaced gradually with Norway spruce and extensive stands of juniper at higher elevations, are a vital resource to these rural communities and are carefully managed and regulated to provide a sustainable supply of timber and non-timber forest products. This region’s extensive mountain and woodland habitats are also some of the last strongholds of species not seen in other parts of Europe for hundreds of years, including bears, lynx and wolves which co-exist with an agricultural system based on subsistence farming. Shepherding and cattle herding are still practiced in most communities, with the village shepherd and herder collecting sheep, cattle and occasionally goats from the village farms after morning milking and returning the animals to the farms and the safety of enclosures in the late afternoon for a second milking. The shepherds and herders are usually accompanied on their daily tours of the common grazings by a number of dogs which provide protection and raise alarm. The notorious Carpathian shepherd dog, which was bred to protect sheep from attacks from bears and wolves, is not as common now as it probably once was, but there is no shortage of large dogs in and around the villages to see off any marauding wildlife.

Gentian on a meadow margin in the Apuseni Mountains

An abundance of top predators has the obvious benefit of keeping the population of wild herbivores in check and natural regeneration is an unhindered natural process that is managed to restock these woodlands as part of traditional, sustainable forest practice.

Falling livestock numbers is resulting in scrub encroachment in many areas. The extensive terraces in the lower valley sides which once supported vineyards, orchards and extensive allotments are being abandoned and lost to encroaching scrub.

We saw areas in the Apunseni Mountains where juniper is burned regularly to maintain grasslands. Coming from Scotland where the extent and distribution of native juniper has been in decline for many centuries to the point where fragmentation of populations, habitat management conflict and more recently Phytophthora austrocedrae mean that juniper is on the Red Data List for the UK, mountainsides covered in regenerating juniper are a welcome sight. There was some discussion amongst participants about the potential for farm diversification into Apunseni gin production!

Regenerating juniper colonising common grazings in the commune of Rimet (the dead bushes are the remnants of previous burning)

The farm gardens and orchards need protection from marauding wildlife, particularly wild pigs and boars while livestock needs protection at night from top predators. We were fortunate enough to see some traditional dead hedging still in use which creates a barrier strong enough to withstand pigs and boar, although in many areas, particularly where the farmers may be absent for part of the week, traditional hedges have been replaced with 2m steel mesh fencing which is obviously less labour intensive to erect and easier to maintain.

Farm ‘garden’ in the commune of Rimet protected by a dead hedge – note new barn on the right while an old traditional thatched barn lies abandoned in the background (left).

Particularly in the Apuseni Mountains, but also elsewhere in north west rural Romania, it was difficult to escape the feeling that traditional rural life is at a cusp of change and that we might have been witnessing the end of a way of life that has existed for hundreds of years. The traditional thatched buildings of the commune of Rimet in the Apuseni area demonstrate this change. These remarkable buildings have stone foundations, floors and low walls but are otherwise made of timber, brushwood and thatch. In the past all buildings – houses, barns, stores etc. were constructed this way throughout the Apuseni. Due to their unique construction and design, these buildings almost never catch fire. Their construction uses the properties of plants (e.g. juniper is repellent to mice) and a design that allows the smoke from the fire to filter through the thatched roof-space, preserving the roof timbers whilst also curing the cheeses and meats stored there. However, the long thatch required for these buildings is no longer produced in this area and although within the commune of Rimet, these traditional building skills are still used to repair some buildings, this is mostly for demonstration purposes. Many of the buildings are no longer used, and so are falling into disrepair and being replaced with buildings made from modern materials.

Making of leaf hay is another rural skill that appears to be dying out due to declining livestock numbers. This involves the cyclical stripping of small branches and foliage of trees and then drying it to provide fodder and bedding for livestock. Leaf hay is also used to form the base of hay stacks to keep the hay from coming in to close contact with the ground and rotting. A form of pollarding, making leaf hay is a time-consuming, skilled practice that involves climbing the trees and is therefore suited to younger farmers, who are now in short supply in many rural areas. Lapsed pollards are now a feature of many rural areas.

Traditional farm buildings still in use in the Apuseni Mountains

 

We spent a day at the family farm of our host Monica Oprean in the village of Girbovita to see first-hand how traditional farming practices still survive in these valleys but also to witness the pressures that these traditional villages have faced since the second world war. Monica’s grandmother Sylvia, who is well into her 80’s, lives an almost entirely subsistence existence on the family farm she has lived on most of her life. The vast array and quantity of fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products (not to mention delicious wine and tuica’ – a traditional local spirit made from plums) produced from a small farm using traditional techniques is testament to the continuous hard work of Sylvia and her family, not to mention a wide range of skills and knowledge passed down through countless generations of farmers.

 

Sylvia with this year’s calf

Whilst the Communist era may have stalled the impact of western society and the march of consumerism in modern Romania, it had a devastating impact on agricultural systems that had been honed and been refined over hundreds of years. Dervla Murphy, the Irish travel writer, visited rural Romania in 1990, just after the fall of the Ceausescu and noted:

The depopulation of rural areas is a global problem but in Romania the manner of its happening seems peculiarly distressing…These are the homes of intelligent, thrifty, creative [people], proud of their knowledge of animal husbandry and crop rotation but now humiliated and impoverished by collectivisation. In faraway city offices, bureaucrats called ‘agricultural engineers’ made disastrous decisions, then drove into the countryside, ordered the villagers to do X, Y and Z, threatened them with dire punishments if they disobeyed – and drove away leaving everyone enraged, yet with no alternative but to do what they knew was wrong, what would debase the land and debilitate the stock while leaving them feeling like traitors to their forefathers Many stories are told of the ignorance of these theorists… one ‘fruit engineer’ arrived to inspect a collectivised orchard and, having surveyed it, gave detailed instructions about what must be done to double the apple production. When he had finished the collectives chairman said ‘Thank you Comrade, I’m sure that’s very good advice about growing apples – but these are plum trees.’

The legacy of this exists today. Restitution of land continues but often there is no-one left to claim the land or no family member that wants to return to this way of life. In Monica’s village we saw the former common grazings and arable land succumbing to the natural process of succession due to the low livestock numbers now grazing these areas. Within the scrub and emerging forest we could see the living remnants of Collectivism as occasional fruit trees that formed part of an extensive orchard once established on the common grazings on the orders of the Central Planning Committee during the Ceausescu dictatorship but long since abandoned as no-one had the stomach to manage it after 1989.

Hillside terraces scrubbing up above the Mures River

Many farmers have other jobs which take them away from the villages during the day or often all week, only returning at weekends. The situation is exacerbated by a poor rural road network resulting in long journey times. This clearly limits the amount of land that can be productively farmed and this is further hindered by the fact that the land belonging to each family is not in continuous plots but often scattered in small plots around the valley. Poor access and difficult terrain means that more remote plots are often abandoned. Frequently these farms are occupied by a generation who have moved away and then retired or semi-retired back their family farms to supplement low incomes by growing their own food or just to escape from an urban lifestyle initially pursued in search of a better life for their families. The result is that the population is aging and these valleys that once supported large vibrant communities now only need to produce enough food to feed a handful of people. There is a feeling of looming threat of industrial scale farming as small-scale farmers sell-out to a farming system that relies on economies of scale. Rural depopulation is an issue throughout the modern world, but many countries are now beginning to see a slow reverse in this trend with people in search of a life away from towns and cities and a connection with the land and the natural environment. We were fortunate enough to meet with one man (and his horse) on his weekly trip to Rimet for provisions for his young family. He and his wife had moved from Bucharest to a nearby valley accessible only on foot or horseback for a simpler life away from the trappings and pressures of urban living. This story is played out in most modern societies and may be part of the answer to the saving of these rural communities. Teaching of rural skills and traditional farming techniques to incomers choosing to relocate might be part of the future of these areas.

In Monica’s village, scrub encroachment on common grazings is a major issue and many hectares of former grazings support emerging woodland. Secondary species such as oak and hornbeam are now well-established within the dense scrub and the opportunity to develop new wood pasture from these areas of natural regeneration is being considered. Some of the younger farmers are considering investing in some hardier breeds of Scottish cattle to help control the scrub encroachment. Recently, a group of volunteers from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority returned the year after a study tour to spend a week helping the local farmers to control scrub on the common grazings. In return the volunteers were hosted by local families for their stay. Given the increasing demand for activity and volunteering holidays, there may be an opportunity to establish a more formal working holiday programme that brings able, willing labour from other parts of Europe (and Romania) to experience village life in exchange for work that will contribute to the survival of sustainable subsistence agricultural practices in these areas.

Sunset in the Apuseni Mountains

Another notable feature of rural Transylvania is the excellent broadband internet speed and coverage (some of the best in Europe). This opens up many possibilities for rural living within a digital economy and may allow many urban-based businesses and individuals the option of relocating to these areas.

Haymaking in Sibot

 

While it is clear that farming systems are under-going changes in rural Transylvania, these are still working landscapes and while the land is valued, those working it are not sentimental about change. We visited some wood pasture on the banks of the Mures River where ancient black poplars, white poplars and mulberry trees stand in an area of common grazing surrounded by intensively farmed arable land (mostly put over to maize production). Many of these ancient trees are succumbing to natural processes and are dying. Recent dredging of the river for sand and gravel seems to have exacerbated the decline of those trees nearest the river by altering the water table. Hollowed, ancient trees are used by the local cattle herders and shepherds. Cooking fires are lit in the hollow boles of the trees and others are used for storage. As well as providing valuable shade and shelter for livestock, these trees must be among the oldest in the region, yet no attempts have been made to either protect the trees so that they might survive for as long as possible or to regenerate trees to perpetuate the wood pasture. The trees are viewed as a working feature of the landscape and once they have disappeared the land will still continue to provide grazing. It seems likely that the wood pasture was far more extensive in the past but that increased arable production of the land has resulted in loss of grassland and standing trees. The area of wood pasture we visited may only survive by virtue of it being a common grazing belonging to the whole village – any change in management and use therefore requires the agreement of every grazier with rights to use the land.

Ancient wood pasture on the Mures River

Hollow black poplar in ancient wood pasture being used as a wardrobe!

The creeping colonisation of invasive species was noted in many of the areas we visited. Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) are beginning to choke watercourses and box elder (Acer negundo) and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), both of which produce poor quality timber, are colonising large areas of former grazings and marginal farm land. The long term environmental impact and financial implications of leaving these species unchecked does not appear to be widely appreciated as we were told that these species are not considered to be a problem.

Ailanthus altissima colonising under-used common grazings near the Mures River

A visit to Transylvania would not be complete without a visit to a castle and we spent some time at Corvin Castle in Hunedoara which dates from the 15th century. The castle, one of the largest in Europe, is built in the Gothic-Renaissance style and despite having undergone many reconstructions during its history, remains a spectacular sight, although the urgent need for investment for consolidation and restoration works was evident.

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara

Equally, if not more impressive is the star-shaped Alba Carolina Citadel in the historic city of Alba Iulia. This beatifically preserved fortress, built in the 18th century, covers an area of about 140ha with fortifications, gardens, palaces, an Orthodox cathedral, museums and even the preserved remains of the original Roman castrum on which the Citadel now stands. Recent restoration works have included remodelling of the public spaces and installation of sculptures that relate to the history of the town and Transylvania. For western Europeans, the most remarkable aspect of Alba Iulia and particularly the Citadel was the lack of tourists. Certainly there were plenty of visitors, mostly Romanian, but the site was not crowded. It is clear that mass tourism is yet to find Transylvania but with regular flights from other parts of Europe to ClujNapoca (the flight from London –Luton to Cluj-Napoca is only 2 hours), it surely can’t be far away.

The diverse history of Transylvania is reflected in the quality and variety of its architecture. The architectural heritage of many of the towns we visited has survived intact through two world wars and the communist era. The value of these buildings within the context of towns and cities seems to be appreciated and certainly in Cluj-Napoca, investment in restoration was evident, although the building of a new cathedral, started in the early 1980’s (during the Ceausescu era) is still on-going as funding has been an issue. Investment in restoration seems to be concentrating on grander structures however, and the value of traditional, rural buildings is yet to be formally recognised.

Cluj-Napoca Opera Theatre built in the Neo-baroque still in the early 20th century

The diverse ecclesiastical architecture of the region is also notable. The Orthodox Church was tolerated throughout the communist era and many of these highly decorated churches survived intact. We were shown round a particularly beautiful example in the village of Sibot by its priest who welcomed us and tried to give each of us a gift of a book on the history of the church and its frescoes, despite us arriving unannounced and uninvited.

Ceiling fresco in Orthodox Church, Sibot

The most surprising and unexpected architecture that we saw was that of the new ‘Roma/Gypsy Palaces’. Wildly ostentatious modern mansions, bedecked in the intricate metal-work that the Roma community in Romania are famous for. The houses are built with money earned abroad and invested in buildings as status symbols of wealth. These houses are, however, often cheaply built, unfinished, and unlived in for much of the year.

‘Roma Palace’

Conclusion

Romania’s reputation has been much blighted throughout the postCeausescu period and even today many Western Europeans associate the country with images of appalling orphanages, stray dogs and poverty. Yet we saw glimpses of a country rich in tradition and cultural heritage with some of the most biodiverse and beautiful countryside in Europe. However, even the remotest parts of Transylvania cannot escape the changes (both positive and negative) that modern 21st century society and membership of the EU is now bringing. There is an opportunity here to learn from the mistakes and successes of rural communities in other European countries to ensure the protection and careful use and management of these invaluable and irreplaceable cultural and natural assets to ensure their survival. The enormous potential throughout Transylvania for both eco- and cultural tourism is obvious to any visitor from Western Europe involved in land or tourism management but here there is an chance to both capitalise on these assets while introducing regulatory systems that minimise exploitation coupled with support systems that encourage traditional management to maintain the elements of the landscape and culture that make it unique.

 

 

Acknowledgements

I would particularly like to thank Monica Oprean of Satul Verde who hosted this course and Libby Urquhart for organising it through Arch. Ltd. Thanks also to Martin Clark of Grampus Heritage for his invaluable input and to my employer Woodland Trust Scotland for allowing me to attend. I am indebted to EU Erasmus+ for supporting this programme.

Itinerary

Day 1 – 21st August: Arrived in Cluj Napoca early evening and travelled to “Casa Domeniile Vinului”, at Cuimbrud on the outskirts of AiudGroup meal and discussion about the week ahead.

 Day 2 – 22nd August: We visited the village of Girbovita to meet family members of our host Monica Oprean and have a tour of their farm.  The visit included an introduction to scything and haymaking, a visit to an emerging wood pasture and the adjacent oak forest.  The day included a tour of the hay meadows, common grazings,  village ‘gardens’, orchards and  vineyards as well as a delicious lunch on the farm made from produce grown by the family, followed by seeing the food preservation techniques for winter in the cellar.

Day 3 – 23rd August: Visit to one of the hamlets that make up the village of Rimet in the Apunseni Mountains.  The morning included a tour of the Ethnographic Museum with a group of art students being hosted by Grampus as well as a visit to the adjacent recently re-constructed traditional thatched building that is currently being converted for use by the Museum and the local highly decorated Orthodox church. The afternoon provided the opportunity to walk into the hills behind the village to look at the woodland and hay meadows as well as the layout of the traditional farming landscape.  An evening meal was provided by the Museum staff at the local boarding school further down the valley.

Day 4 – 24th August: We visited a local fruit tree nursery with the proprietor, including demonstrations on grafting techniques.  The afternoon involved a visit to the local producers market in Aiud followed by a tour of some of the town’s historic buildings. 

Day 5 – 25th August: Visit to a Roma horse and livestock market on the outskirts of Aiud followed by a visit to the European bison enclosure within state forest land at Hateg.  From Hateg, we travelled to Hunedoara, via the Roma ‘gypsy’ houses, to see the Gothic- Renaissance Corvin Castle.  Over-night in Alba-Iulia.

Day 6 – 26th August: We drove along the Mures River to visit ancient black poplar and mulberry wood pasture stopping firstly at the Saxon church at Vurpar followed by the highly decorated Orthodox Church in the village of Sibot. Here we met the village priest and were also able to see a traditional Saxon house and walled garden albeit now derelict following a devastating flood in the 1970’s. The village was accessed via cable ferry crossing on the river.

Day 7 – 27th August: Visit to the Vauban Fortress, Citadel of Alba Iulia, in the morning.  Lunch at the forest park at the edge of the city and then we explored the new arboretum ‘Dr. Ion Vlad’.  Afternoon departure to the village of Remetea– a Hungarian village that tripled the number of tourists in the last few years. We then had a brief walking tour of the pedestrian city centre in Cluj Napoca. Over-night in Cluj Napoca.

Day 8 – 28th August: Depart.

 

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