By Sian Atkinson, Woodland Trust
Translyvania – the very word has romantic connotations of jagged mountain peaks, dark and brooding forests, and of course, vampires. Literally, from the Latin “beyond the forest”, the name first appears in medieval times, and is fitting. The Carpathian mountains, cloaked in swathes of oak and beech forest, sweep around the area, all but enclosing a flatter plateau, up to 500m above sea level, and dotted with farms, towns and villages.
Sometimes referred to as the last medieval landscape in Europe, rural Transylvania, particularly in the mountains and their foothills, is a curious mix of the land that time forgot, and a modern economy trying to happen. Our Erasmus funded trip, organised through ARCH, focused on the traditional land management techniques that are still practised in the area, and gave an insight into a relationship between people and nature that barely exists any more in the UK – the benefits and amazing potential of such a relationship, but also its fragility.
The realisation that we are experiencing a climate emergency, and are on the cusp of a global mass extinction of species, has generated, or at least accelerated the debate around the concept of rewilding. It is no longer enough, the argument goes, to protect a handful of isolated nature reserves and carry on regardless in the spaces between. In the UK, where species are declining at an alarming rate, we are beginning to recognise that whole landscapes and ecosystems are broken, no longer able to function to provide the services that we (and more importantly, the whole planet system) require from them. Language is changing from conservation and preservation of habitats and species, to restoration of natural systems and processes.
Unless you are a real purist, there needs to be a place for our own species in this new world order, a place where we are able to flourish, while at the same time allowing nature space and time to recover, to heal our plant’s life support systems, and then to find a balance point from which to move forward. Our relationship with the land, and the way we provide for our basic needs from it, is key. On this front, it seems there is much to learn from Romania.
Romania as a whole is a significant reservoir of biodiversity within Europe. It has 50% of Europe’s brown bears, and 20% of its wolves, with other big, iconic species such as lynx, wild boar and European bison also roaming the Carpathian mountains. Birds of prey also abound, with around 25 or 30 species listed. The presence of these apex predators in healthy numbers points to a landscape with ecosystems that function and sufficient habitat to support a wealth of life from the tiniest organisms in the soil upwards, resonating with the vision that the rewilding lobby in the UK have for repairing our broken landscapes.
Part of the reason for this is the amount of protected land – 5% of the total area of Romania, including 13 national parks and 3 biosphere reserves – and the amount of forest cover, which is 27%, and, importantly, exists in continuous swathes rather than the fragmented pattern seen in the 13% of the UK that is forested. However, it is also to do with the lack of development and modification of the land. Nearly half of Romania consists of natural and semi-natural ecosystems. Lower population pressure and less industrialisation mean a very different picture from the majority of the UK, where there is little land that has not been heavily modified by people in some way.
In Transylvania, the majority of the rural population are farmers. Subsistence farming is still a way of life here, and while the term has, in many parts of the world, almost become synonymous with the idea of poverty, in fact the people that we saw farming in Transylvania, while not materially wealthy, had everything that they needed, almost self sufficient in food and fuel, not to mention alcoholic beverages!
In the village of Girbovita, at the edge of the Apuseni mountains, Monica Oprean’s family, headed by her 90-year-old grandmother, farms around 10 hectares of land. The village, a handful of houses strung out along a rough road, nestles in a sheltered valley. Theirs is a traditional holding, with pigs, chickens and rabbits in the farmyard, protected from predators by dogs, areas close by for growing vegetables, and scattered plots in the wider valley holding orchards and hay meadows. The villagers share a common grazing area above the orchards, and across the valley are visible strip-farmed field for other crops.
The farm operates almost as a closed system, with no inputs of chemical fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides, and no waste – everything that can be is returned to the land in some way or other, even the washing up is first rinsed in water that is then fed to the pigs. Crops are harvested, and if not eaten immediately are preserved or pickled. Meat is smoked and stored. Food is abundant, healthy and delicious. We talk about ecological connectivity in landscapes – here you can feel it. Land plots are small and intimate, patches and mosaics of orchard and fields nestled in the valley below heavily forested slopes. Trees are everywhere, an integral part of the farming system, from the willows along the stream, pollarded to produce long slender poles to support the haystacks, to coppiced hazel, woven into a “fence without wires” – similar to hazel hurdles – that protects an orchard from wild boar. The vast majority of forest is state-owned, and managed, but villagers also have their plots of forest for firewood. Even smaller sticks are still bound into bundles of faggots, burnt in a traditional bread oven in the house.
Willow pollard in Girbovita
This pattern is replicated across the wider landscape. Further up in the mountains, above the forest and distanced from the plateau below by ten miles of rough track, lies the tiny village of Rimet, surrounded by scattered farmsteads. Species rich hay meadows roll across rounded hill tops, dotted with the ubiquitous haystacks. The meadows here are unbelievably diverse with far more herb species than grasses – gentians, chicory, yarrow, crocus, lady-s mantle, knapweed, toadflax, lupin, fumitory, forget me not, milkwort, daisies. In spring and early summer it would be a riot of colour, but even in September the richness is apparent, and it takes little imagination to see how it would be buzzing with insect life at its peak – supporting the essential pollinators for the villagers’ crops. In turn, herb-rich hay, with its higher levels of essential nutrients, particularly minerals, will lead to healthier livestock and better quality milk and meat.
Traditional haystack in Apuseni Mountains
Management is low impact, with minimal use of machinery. The hay is cut by hand using scythes, and raked and stacked into hayricks supported on a frame of poles to allow air circulation. In winter, the hay is stored in barns close to the farmyard. Farming this way is hard work. The climate here is one of continental extremes, with temperature in winter dipping to -20 deg C, and in summer rising to 35 deg C. But there are surprising benefits. Cutting and stacking hay by hand means the soil is not compacted or disturbed. Meadow ants’ hills remain intact, and because there is an intimate relationship between these and the blue butterfly, these beautiful insects are abundant. This is a single example of the thousands of relationships that underpin ecosystems. The way they all fit together in ecological networks is still relatively poorly understood, as is their role in the macro-functions of ecosystems. In the UK, where we do not even know what we have lost, there is so much we might be able to learn from traditional farmers in Transylvania.
This way of life is itself fragile and threatened. Everywhere there is evidence of land abandonment, from overgrown vine terraces on the hillsides to scrub encroaching the orchards and meadows that have been left unmanaged. In the high mountain areas, upland pastures were once farmed for long straw wheat, with the straw used to thatch the traditional, steep-roofed houses and barns. These buildings are still there, but many are falling into disrepair, and nobody is growing the crops that would provide replacement thatch. As with hill farmers in the UK, the rural population is ageing. Younger people are not staying to work the land, but leaving for the cities, or for work abroad. Subsistence farming is hard work. The scattered nature and size of individual plots make it even more difficult to navigate the bureaucracy around grants, and many farmers are also deterred from producing items for sale because this also entails bureaucracy, and taxes.
Tourism could be a saviour for this region, but there is a risk of development at any cost – even at the cost of the unique landscape and way of life that would draw tourists in. Despite protection of some areas through nature reserves, it is not clear whether there is value placed on the undesignated working landscapes.
Near the village of Homorod, we visited a wood pasture with dotted monolithic black poplar, some perhaps 4-500 years old from their girth. These mighty trees afford essential shade to the cattle that graze beneath, and in the past, they may have been managed, but now there is no evidence of management, or even care. Some have even been used as chimneys, with fires lit in the hollows at the base. Developing scrub that could provide the right conditions for a new generation of trees to establish and grow is being cleared, seedling poplars show evidence of heavy browsing, and none are growing even to sapling stage. In the UK, such an area might well be designated a SSSI, but here it appears not to be valued. Even if EU grants were available, they might be counterproductive, with requirements to prevent scrub encroachment. This is a familiar story to us in the UK, where wood pasture is often the forgotten habitat and little understood.
Ancient black poplar near Homerod
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. We could do with more research that unravels the ecological relationships and networks, processes and functions that are supported by traditional land management and support a healthy environment.
Finally, while a wholesale return to subsistence farming is not feasible in a UK context, it seems ironic that we are beginning to prescribe gardening, outdoor activity and doses of nature for a range of mental and physical ailments. Perhaps there is something to be learnt here – a shift in social, as well as environmental policy – to give people the time and space to contribute in a physical way to producing their own food and fuel, and at the same time connect with the natural world.