By Kate Smith
During my visit to Romania I was struck by both the many differences and the similarities between our two countries and our approaches to land management. In Scotland we are still suffering the effects of deforestation and intensive farming practices carried out generations ago. In contrast Romania is fighting to hold on to its traditional ways of life whilst becoming more industrialised. As they continue to modernise there is a real risk of repeating mistakes we have already made, but it also feel that there are opportunities here for our two nations to learn from each other.
Traveling through Transylvanian mountains and comparing them to the Highlands of Scotland the most noticeable difference for me is the deepness of the green. The slopes here are bathed in forests where we have denuded hillsides of scrub and peat hags. Here the tree line is so high that on many of these mountain there isn’t one – the forest simply keeps on marching up and over the top. It is astonishing to see such vast areas of tree cover when I’ve grown so used to empty glens. Though the climate here is more sheltered than the UK, in part due to Romania’s lack of open coastline, the summers hotter and drier and the winters colder, still so many of the species found here are the same as those back home. Romania has herb rich hay meadows where we would expect heathland, but there remains something familiar about the sites we visit. It’s a little like stepping back in time, or into a fairy tale version of the forests we have lost.
In Scotland and throughout the UK, we are working to replant areas of woodland where they have disappeared, for security in terms of flood alleviation and reduction of erosion, as well as for the health of the wildlife that calls it home. In rural Romania the challenges appear almost the opposite of our own. Where we have replanting schemes, here trees are taking back ground that was once productive farmland as families struggle to manage their plots. In the small orchard belonging to our host Monica’s grandmother, we come across hundreds of oak seedlings sprouting in between the plum trees. The family routinely remove these saplings to stop them encroaching on the orchards and hay meadows, which seems an unusual problem to a visitor from the UK more used to planting and protecting any young native trees that manage to take hold. Traditional subsistence farming, as practiced by many of the family farms in Romania is low impact -there is little use of herbicides and most tasks are still carried using hand tools. This means biodiversity remains high even where regular forest clearance is taking place as the number of trees removed remains relatively small, though there is some unavoidable impact on wildlife in areas where wild predators come into contact with livestock and there is a need for control methods.
It’s not only the small rural villages that nestle into the forests – here even the larger towns and cities are surrounded by forested hills. While eating breakfast at a hotel rest stop by the side of the recently upgraded main road winding through the forests and mountains, we discuss the effects that changes to land ownership are having on the habitats around us. Following past land grabs by the Communist party, families are only now regaining the full deeds to their land holdings following long drawn procedures to trace ownership. As land is reclaimed its use and management changes. Roaming shepherds who move their livestock across vast areas of meadows are finding many of their favoured routes blocked by newly re-established boundaries. Many families are also cashing in on the quick returns for clear felling areas of forest that have becomes established on their ancestral plots. This approach is causing similar issues as found elsewhere on the planet, with erosion and loss of habitat often followed up with poor planning for future management of the site.
A long standing connection with forestry is clearly evident in the traditional building methods found throughout Romania. Many of the early roofing techniques using long poles and thatching are reminiscent of the ancient crannog dwellings of Scotland, but long after we had moved towards squat stone wall buildings, more able to withstand our wet windy conditions, the Romanians and their close neighbours continued to develop ever more beautiful and ingenious wooden structures. From simple farm buildings with towering thatched, steeply domed roofs to shed the heavy snows, to unique and intricately shingled wooden churches. Visiting the Museum of Traditional Folk Civilisation on the outskirts of Sibiu illustrates the link between forest and shelter – beautiful displays of reconstructed buildings from all over the country nestle into a woodland park.
In a country still recovering from the effects of communist rule amid on-going accusations of government corruption, the main priority for many Romanian is to improve the economy and the quality of life for its inhabitants. Especially when faced with a falling population: younger , well-educated generations are temped abroad by higher wages and lower taxes. As is so often the case this is often in direct conflict with the needs of native wildlife and their habitats. However this low population may also be another factor in the survival of so many vast forests here. Romania covers an area of 92,046 sq miles compared to the UK’s slightly smaller 80,823 sq miles, but Romania has a population of around 19 million people compared with over 60 million currently residing in Britain. That’s a difference of 200 people for every square mile in Romania compared with 750 people for each square mile of land in the UK. Romania is a country with a huge amount of stunning natural capital which could provide a wide range of economic opportunities for eco-tourism, attracting nature trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts keen to holiday to remotes and unspoilt landscapes. Indeed, walking tours and wildlife spotting holiday companies are beginning to appear, creating a modest but growing industry here.
The challenge now is how the conflict between improving local economies and providing jobs is balanced against protecting traditional livelihoods and the native wildlife. A little over 5% of Romania is designated as protected land, including 14 national parks where hunting is banned. As a comparison, the UK has 15 national parks (two of which are in Scotland) covering an area 10 times. A further 17 sites are designated as natural parks totalling 5,449km2. They also have an impressive 617 natural reservations which cover 2,043km². However Romania’s forest is much more widespread than our own, with tree cover over nearly 30% of the country compared to our more modest 11%. There is a risk that the development of tourism could have a detrimental impact, especially in unprotected areas. We met with the mayor of one mountain village keen to encourage tourists in a bid to bring much needed income to his local area. However his view of what it would take to attract more visitors- better roads, modern guest houses, restaurants and shops filled with mass produced souvenirs, may end up in direct conflict with the need to ensure that these rural ways of life and the wild places they support. This a potential crossroads, where the truly sustainable development of an locally run tourism industry in rural Romania could provide a world leading example.
In the UK we have a long history of philanthropy on both a local and national scale. It’s become common place for many services – social as well as environmental – to be reliant on the income and support raised by dedicated charities. NGOS are not as widely trusted in Romania and the church receives the lion’s share of any donations from local residents. For many Romanians the forests might not appear in need of protection – they are simply the places where they, and countless generations before them, have always lived and worked. Presently there are still plenty of trees and the idea of donating money or volunteering their time to keep them safe and share their wonders, probably wouldn’t even occur.
As the modern world grows ever faster and our lives are conducted more and more online in front of screens, not only our working lives but also our social interactions, medical experts are starting to agree that our growing disconnection from the natural world is have a measurable negative impact on our physical and mental health. GPs in Scotland can now prescribe time outside as part of the treatment for a range of health conditions. The protection of the natural world has hit a crises point that can no longer be seen as a luxury that has little impact on humans. As we fight to protect our own remaining natural habitats it seems to me that much of Romania is worthy of our attention, and perhaps we can learn a little from their approach and offer support to help them hold onto their vast and magnificent forests.
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.