Visiting Alba and neighbouring counties in Transylvania, Romania was the highlight of my working year. I applied to go on this ERASMUS funded Arch destination as I thought it would be an interesting in-sight into how other European countries manage the funding opportunities provided by the European Common Agricultural Policy, particularly to benefit the small scale farmer and small rural communities. My main area of work during the year is assessing Agri-Environment and Climate Change grant applications. In Scottish Natural Heritage we assess any applications which involve land management on designated sites or deer management. As Romania is one the new member states to enter the European fold, lies in Eastern Europe where in the past agriculture has had many challenges, I was interested to see and hear their story and find out if and how the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy was benefitting agriculture and the environment in Romania. I live and work in the North West Highlands of Scotland, one of the Crofting Counties where small scale agriculture dominates. Romania is a country where small, semi subsistence/subsistence farming is of great importance. Is there a future for this type of farming in the European Union?
In Scotland, we have lost many of the attitudes to livestock husbandry that allow coexistence with predators. The exception to this is with smaller livestock such as chickens, were the concept of protection is well understood. If we ever bring back any of the larger predators, we can learn from the practices employed in countries like Romania.
Finally, if we are going to be able to support a viable wildcat population in perpetuity in Scotland (i.e. without risk of hybridisation), we may need to look at the environment in Romania and see what we can take from it that helps both wildcats and biodiversity more generally.
In the Cairngorms National Park tourism has greatly influenced a range of factors including the development of towns and villages, road infrastructure, signage, land management, demographics and employment. The park has a resident population of 18,000 people and every year between April and October 1.8 million visitors enter the park boundary. This volume of tourism requires significant resource to manage. Rimet is on the cusp of change and in ten years may be a very different village to the one it is now; a small, picturesque village in a beautiful location. The decision makers have the opportunity now to plan for change, to look at other examples across the world, learn from their mistakes and demonstrate sustainable tourism in practice.
What can be learnt from all this? Preserving traditional land management, culture and ways of life in Transylvania is crucial, not as a quaint museum piece, but within a wider narrative that draws out their interconnectedness with the natural world. Supporting younger people to remain in rural areas, and to develop low impact, ecologically conscious tourism at a rate and scale that supports rather than destroys the existing balance and pattern of life could be part of the answer, and providing agri-environment grants and packages that are easily accessed, and truly supportive of small scale subsistence farmers could be another. From a UK perspective, we need to learn as much as we can.
Years ago a friend visited Romania and when he returned he commented that the countryside he found there felt to him how he imagined much of Scotland must have once been. We are a nation working to restore natural habitats that have been lost and to repair the mistakes we have made in the past, while they are a country who still hold the potential to learn from the mistakes made in other lands and work to protect and celebrate their wild landscapes, before they need to be saved and restored. I look around the vast scenes of canopy covered mountains and wonder if Transylvania isn’t just a glimpse of what Scotland has lost but of what it could also recover.
Following my structured training course in Romania and subsequent discussion with my colleagues, we now have plans to bring some of the traditional village farming methods from Romania onto Balmacara Estate. We have a demonstration species-rich meadow on a high profile gateway site. Next year before the harvest we will get the students from the crofting course at Plockton High School to establish a number of fixed quadrats on the meadow. They will record and quantify the plant species and invertebrate life within these quadrats giving us a base sample. When the meadow is ready to cut, half will be done by the students using scythes, creating Romanian style haystacks in the process. The other half of the meadow will be cut using modern machinery creating round baling hay. On an annual basis the crofting students will carry out the same procedures, and we will monitor the quadrats to check what is happening to the biodiversity within each half of the meadow.
An openness of this kind to new ideas could be key to the sustainable development of Transylvannia and many other places like it. Outsiders could come to live in these remote regions, enticed by the free land and materials, and make a commitment to work the land – undertaking to do the hard graft, and to learn from the community, before these skills are lost. There is huge interest from people in the UK and beyond, who recognise this need to get back to the land, who would undertake this – within a system they can trust, and that works for everyone. If the new road leads to developments in infrastructure which eventually allow faster internet, then a whole new raft of possibilities open up to people working part time on the internet for some income, but remaining committed to small scale farming practice – knowing its value from having seen the results of over development in their various countries of origin.
The transfer of skills to the RSPB and National Park volunteers (and others interested in attending) would be an extremely valuable and sustainable asset. Scything and stacking the fen vegetation may not entirely replace the need to use machinery over this extensive site. It would however be a very useful addition to the methods available to maintain these important sites for wildlife.
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.
The Romanian experience has led to a great deal of reflection on how hay, orchards, amenity grassland, ‘rough grass’ and agricultural set aside is managed in Britain. The tendency to use rotary mowers and in the agricultural setting mower conditioners, must have an impact on invertebrate life. In Romania, we were able to experience what is possible with grassland management when it is more sympathetic to biodiversity. It has been enlightening.