Here I will have an in-depth look at the traditional wildlife-rich landscape of Transylvania, with three practical conservation lessons to take home to the UK.
During the summer of 2016, I returned to the Târnava Mare region of Transylvania as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea. Overall I have spent six weeks in six different villages of this fascinating part of the world.
In the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, wooded hills slope into valleys covered by pastures, meadows and orchards. The long, linear Saxon villages straddle slow moving streams, with small arable fields and vegetable patches closest to the houses. Cows, sheep and goats are guided through the pastures every day, and pigs, geese and chickens are kept at home. Horses pulling carts are vital for collecting hay, milk and providing transport.
This type of landscape would have covered much of Europe during Medieval times, and has now almost completely disappeared. This is how Britain would have looked hundreds of years ago: in many ways, the expedition was like a journey back in time. Transylvania appealed to me because many of the European species were familiar and as a countryside ranger, I feel there are a lot of lessons to take home.
There was no better way to immerse myself in Transylvania than by taking part in a range of wildlife surveys with experts in their fields.
Biodiversity and a mosaic of habitats
Located in southern Transylvania, Romania, the Târnava Mare covers an area 850 km2 in size. There are 30 small villages scattered throughout the valleys area with a population of about 25,000 people. Compare this to the West Midlands, which is 902km2 in size and has a population of over 2.8 million. The small villages haven’t changed in size or structure for centuries.
The Târnava Mare is a Natura 2000 area, which protects important habitats and species. Many of the Transylvanian habitats are protected by the EU Habitats Directive (for example, the meadow-steppe grasslands), and many species are threatened internationally and nationally.
The mosaic of habitats found in the Târnava Mare creates an ecosystem rich in biodiversity. Grassland, scrub and woodland are the dominant habitats, interspersed with valuable microhabitats such as ponds and bare earth that all play a part in the life-cycles of the many species that live here. There are also urban habitats, with birds nesting and many species of bats roosting in the houses and fortified churches of the villages.
The region contains the largest area of lowland hay meadows and the only remaining lowland wolves and bears in Europe.
During my expedition, I was lucky to see over 400 species of plant, bird, insect, reptile and mammal. The sheer abundance and diversity of flora was incredible, there were handfuls of new plants to identify every day. More than 300 bird species and around 1,700 species of butterfly and moth inhabit the region.
Each village had a different character and the same rule applied to the hay meadows. Of the meadows and grasslands that had the highest nature value, the community of species was always slightly different. One meadow was teeming with blue butterflies: common, silver studded, short-tailed and eastern short-tailed blues could all be caught with one sweep of the butterfly net.
One meadow was extremely steep and decorated with the sugar-white flowers of branched St Bernard’s-lily.
One damp meadow was the favoured place of dazzling green forester moths and fiery scarce copper butterflies.
One grassland was cloaked small hummocks and was filled with positive indicator grassland species such as sainfoin, lady’s bedstraw, betony, yellow scabious and crown vetch.
One orchard grassland was rich in small mammals, with golden orioles and bee-eaters abundant overhead.
All of the meadows contained a sward structure similar to the layers of a forest canopy, albeit on a much smaller scale. Herbs and grasses jostle for space: species-rich meadows contain the highest number of species per m2 than other habitats on earth, including rainforests. 43 species have been recorded in 0.1m2 of grassland in Romania1
In Transylvania, some of the meadows classed as low nature value would be species-rich grassland here in the UK. Even the meadows showing signs of ‘improvement’ were still rich with legumes and pollinators feeding on them.
Invertebrates were abundant and diverse, with many species of beetle, ant, spider, grasshopper and cricket residing among the vegetation. The profusion of life at the lower trophic levels in this ecosystem results in healthy populations of predatory species requiring lots of protein, such as sand lizard, red backed shrike, European bee-eater and kestrel. The meadow ecosystem is a perfect example of how getting things right at the base of the pyramid trickles all the way up the chain.
Biodiversity and farming practices
The reason the Transylvanian region is so biodiverse is mainly due to agriculture and paradoxically, the reason much of the wildlife in our country is declining is also mainly due to agriculture. This is everything to do with the degree of intensification, the scale and location of farming practices, the speed, timing and efficiency of these methods. Changing the traditional, low intensity land use of the Târnava Mare will certainly damage the biodiversity.
In the absence of large mammals that would have created a mosaic of habitats, the advent of agriculture around 5,000 years ago conveniently provided food and habitats for a wide range of species. Low input, low intensity farming provides the greatest benefits for wildlife.
In Transylvania, livestock are the reason for much of the biodiversity, but also have potential to damage parts of the habitats. The region contains the most species-rich grasslands in Europe due to the centuries-old traditional management techniques: low intensity grazing and regular cutting for hay. If it weren’t for the keeping of cattle (one of which can eat four loaded carts of hay each winter), there wouldn’t be such botanical diversity and abundance of grassland species. It is important to monitor the number of cows kept by the villagers each year, as a decline in the number of cattle kept could result in land abandonment, jeopardising the precious meadow ecosystem.
Sheep are kept for meat and cheese and are grazed on pastures some distance from the villages all summer, where shepherds milk them daily. Pastures that are heavily sheep grazed have low sward height, very low botanical diversity, with more grass dominance and low insect species richness and abundance. Local beekeepers voiced their concerns about higher intensity sheep grazing, resulting in fewer floral resources for their honeybees.
Maintaining the heterogeneous landscape is key to conserving the biodiversity that currently exists: a fine scale mosaic of arable, pasture, meadow, roadside and woodland habitats.
‘The whole fragile ecosystem of villages, landscape and biodiversity has to be conserved as a geographical, cultural and biological entity’2
Fundația ADEPT, along with government and other NGOs are undertaking a number of measures to conserve the traditional management and thereby the wildlife of the Târnava Mare: scientific surveys are carried out by Operation Wallacea, economic incentives for conservation are being implemented, local people are being educated and tourism is being promoted.
Provision of subsidies need to support a range of conservation targets for the Târnava Mare. The people who live and farm the region are central to maintaining the wildlife-rich habitats, therefore it is crucial to ensure they can continue to farm in the traditional way whilst having a decent quality of life.
The Common Agricultural Policy doesn’t generally favour small-scale, traditional management practices. However, since 2008, grasslands with the highest nature value have been protected with an EU agri-environment scheme: the grasslands must be cut late in the year, grazed at low densities (one or fewer animals per hectare) with minimal amounts of fertiliser applied. Payments are also available for farmers who farm without machinery.
A study has found the hay meadows have a better structure with higher botanical diversity: the authors propose that higher payments should be awarded to hay meadow management, to avoid conversion to pasture.3
If the British countryside was similar to Transylvania in the past, what can we learn for the future?
The average layperson may think rural Britain contains plenty of lush, green fields, full of wildlife. But from a naturalist’s viewpoint, much of our countryside is degraded, especially when put into the perspective of time. Within a couple of generations, we have lost millions of birds from our skies, as well as a multitude of flowers and insects from our fields. This is due to decades of intensification, resulting in destruction and mismanagement of hedgerows, degradation of hay meadows and pastures and the increasing use of pesticides, among other factors. The State of Nature Report 2016 shows the continuing downward trends of wildlife in Britain: 56% of species studied have declined since 1970 and a tenth are at risk of extinction.
Over 70% of the UK is farmland, at the opposite end of the management scale from Transylvanian farmland. It is recognised that creation of a mosaic of habitats (akin to a Transylvanian landscape) is desperately needed in the UK, in order to conserve a range of species4
Wildlife and farming can coexist, in fact, many aspects of farming rely on nature. Bees, flies and other insects are essential for pollinating crops, healthy soils contain a multitude of organisms, trees and hedges absorb excess rainwater and shelter livestock. It is possible to have space for nature whilst producing good quality food. Hope Farm is an excellent example. Managed by the RSPB, Hope Farm is an arable farm in Cambridgeshire which farms for wildlife and maintains yields comparable to other farms. Over 15 years, butterflies have increased 224% and the Farmland Bird Index has increased by 174%: only a handful of Yellowhammers were seen wintering at the farm in 2000 and this increased to 723 in 2015.5
Three practical conservation lessons to take home from the Târnava Mare:
These measures could be achieved by reshaping the farming subsidy system post-Brexit. The chance to reform the CAP could be a perfect opportunity to have positive impacts on wildlife in this country and reverse declines.
- Reduce the dependence on artificial fertilisers and particularly pesticides. There is still a lot of research to be done on the effects of pesticides on all sorts of wildlife, but many studies have found extremely negative effects that extend beyond the field boundary of the farm.
- a) Encourage the cutting of hay and grass silage later in the season, with increased payment for increasing floristic diversity in meadows (good quality cattle forage comprising of species-rich meadow grass is nutritious: excellent for cattle health, meaning less need for antibiotics). Implementing meadow creation and improvement at a landscape scale can provide grassland species with a larger area and a better-connected habitat. b) Cutting the whole area of a grassland at once can leave some species with nowhere to live. In some of the Transylvanian meadows, especially those scythed by hand, cutting was staggered throughout the summer. Leaving uncut margins/strips or rotationally cutting some grasslands can benefit different species and could be suitable techniques for certain types of meadow.
- Reforest hills, especially adjacent to grasslands: the area where the woodland edge meets a meadow is especially beneficial for many species. Planting trees and allowing natural regeneration on some hills and slopes can prevent erosion, reduce flooding and provide an important habitat for woodland species. Managing woods traditionally with rides and glades will support birds and invertebrates.
It would be a terrible shame to lose the unique area of the Târnava Mare, for it to turn into an intensively farmed landscape indistinguishable from anywhere else in Europe.
Imagine if we could restore areas of our countryside to how they would have appeared to our grandparents: riots of flowers along waysides, flocks of finches and sparrows at harvest time and plenty of flower filled meadows. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from Transylvania and make this happen.
- Grasslands More Diverse Than Rain Forests—In Small Areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120320-grasslands-rain-forests-species-diversity-environment/
- The Historic Countryside of the Saxon Villages of Southern Transylvania (2006) John Akeroyd
- Plant species diversity and traditional management in Eastern Carpathian grasslands: Anna Mária Csergő and László Demeter
- The Mosaic Approach: Managing Habitats for Species (2013) Natural England: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6415972705501184
- Hope Farm: http://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hopefarm/
– Biodiversity conservation in a High Nature Value farmed landscape, Transylvania (2011) Fundația ADEPT
– Indicator plants of the High Nature Value dry grasslands of Transylvania (2012) John Akeroyd and Sabin Bădărău
– Fundația ADEPT: http://www.fundatia-adept.org