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From Transylvania back to home

The beauty of Transylvania

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.

View over Apold

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.

This would have been a familiar scene in Medieval England

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.

Bird ringing: these Goldfinches were caught in mist nets and are measured, weighed and fitted with rings before being released

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 village of Mălâncrav
The village of Daia

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.

Hummocks formed by glacial deposits are extremely botanically diverse

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.

Bare earth is important for many butterflies such as these High brown fritillaries to feed on minerals

The region contains the largest area of lowland hay meadows and the only remaining lowland wolves and bears in Europe.

Print of a brown bear in the woods

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.

Lesser grey shrike caught in Viscri
Map butterfly

Species-rich meadows

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.

Blue butterflies

One meadow was extremely steep and decorated with the sugar-white flowers of branched St Bernard’s-lily.

Branched St Bernard’s-lily

One damp meadow was the favoured place of dazzling green forester moths and fiery scarce copper butterflies.

Scarce copper butterfly

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.

A Crab spider lying in wait on the flowers of Betony

One orchard grassland was rich in small mammals, with golden orioles and bee-eaters abundant overhead.


Orchard grassland

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

Wild carrot, chicory, betony, agrimony, field scabious, crown vetch, quaking grass, lady’s bedstraw, wild leek, common restharrow, fleabane and trefoil grow side by side in this patch adjacent to a meadow

 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.

This grassland is dominated by red clover and bird’s-foot trefoil but was providing many species with food

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.

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The meadows were alive with sound created by crickets and grasshoppers

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.

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Local villagers were cutting small sections of the grassland for a manageable, short-term supply of feed for their animals

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.

The pace of life is much slower in the countryside

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.

A fully loaded hay cart will feed one cow for a quarter of the winter

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.

A sheep guard dog and his flock are kept out in the hills

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

European swallowtail butterfly

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.

Map of southern Transylvania

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.

Machines are increasingly being used to farm the region

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.

Funding has allowed local farmers to cut grasslands with walk-behind mowers rather than scythes

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

Hay meadow before cutting
Hay meadow after cutting (a reasonable area behind me has been left uncut – an important refuge for the grassland species that are still going about their daily lives

If the British countryside was similar to Transylvania in the past, what can we learn for the future?

Overhead view of the Transylvanian countryside

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.

Overhead view of the English countryside

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

The Orache moth was formerly resident in East Anglia, but is common in Transylvania

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

Juvenile Yellowhammer

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Fritillary butterflies are dependent on violets growing on open woodland floors as their larval foodplants

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.




This collage of photos sits pride of place on my wall to remind me of my fantastic expedition



  1. Grasslands More Diverse Than Rain Forests—In Small Areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120320-grasslands-rain-forests-species-diversity-environment/
  1. The Historic Countryside of the Saxon Villages of Southern Transylvania (2006) John Akeroyd
  1. Plant species diversity and traditional management in Eastern Carpathian grasslands: Anna Mária Csergő and László Demeter
  1. The Mosaic Approach: Managing Habitats for Species (2013) Natural England: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6415972705501184
  1. 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


Transylvania Expedition

I travelled to the Tarnava Mare region of Transylvania in June 2015 as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea. The purpose of the expedition was to study the wildlife that resides in the habitats and the traditional farming practices that shape this unique area. Designated as a Natura 2000 European protected area, there are a multitude of species that make the ecosystem extra special, including bears, wolves, birds and butterflies.



The village of Richis

The landscape was beautiful: not a fence or gate in sight, with thick forest clothing the hills into the horizon and villages nestled in the valleys surrounded by small arable fields and rich hay meadows. As part of a team of other students, I assisted in a number of surveys: bird point counts, bird ringing, botanical surveys, butterfly transects, small and large mammal surveys, bat surveys and farm visits. A highlight of the trip was going out with a local hunter for the evening: we sat quietly in a clearing by a meadow until dusk and were lucky enough to observe a family of wild boar emerge from the woods, as well as spotting a roe deer, watching noctule bats wheeling high above our heads and hearing the elusive corncrake calling!



Forester moth and Green lizard

It was exciting exploring a landscape where large mammals live and thrive: we saw the scratch marks of brown bear on a cherry tree in the woods and found tracks and hair of beech marten. Sightings of roe deer were a regular occurrence, as were sightings of red-backed shrike – a beautiful bird with a wicked hook at the tip of its beak. We saw the smallest and largest woodpeckers in Europe: the lesser-spotted and black woodpecker. Observing bee-eaters, hoopoes and tawny owls was a treat, as was listening to some of the bird species I’d never heard before, such as golden orioles and marsh and river warblers. Standing watching pipistrelles feeding over a pond at night reminded me of the swallows zooming over the fields and roads in the daytime.



Brown bear scratch marks and male and female red-backed shrikes

It was interesting to see deciduous woodland that was unlike anything I had seen before: the woods had a high canopy dominated by beech and hornbeam, with oak and occasional cherry and field maple. The trunks were tall and straight and even-aged in some areas, though there were some older, more interesting trees that had large girths or lightning damage. There was evidence of selective felling of trees throughout the woods in areas. The shrub layer was sparse, but contained small beech and oak seedlings over a relatively bare ground layer that was thick with beech leaves and included plants such as sanicle, herb paris and solomon’s seal.



Inside the forest

One of my favourite habitats in the area were the hay meadows. The traditionally managed hay meadows were completely different to the high nutrient, grass dominated meadows that are now the norm in the UK. Firstly, the structure of the vegetation was much more open, with an understorey of low-growing plants, such as red clover, wild thyme, crown vetch and bird’s-foot trefoil, and a taller layer above, composed of grasses, dianthus, field scabious, oxeye daisy and st. john’s wort. Secondly, the smell of the cut hay was wonderful; it was rich with the many types of herbs and must have good nutritional content when fed to horses and livestock. Thirdly, the meadows were alive with creatures: every step I took, something sprang out from under my foot. Dozens of different grasshoppers and crickets, the occasional lizard, and of course the many types of butterfly and bee. In one day, we counted over 34 butterfly species along a transect.



High brown fritillary and wildflowers in the meadows

We observed villagers cutting the meadows with a scythe and creating tall haystacks. I noticed how some of the meadows were only partly cut, perhaps to stagger the amount of time and labour required in drying and collecting in the hay. This method ensures an area of long vegetation is available for species seeking refuge from the newly cut, open meadow. Hopefully the large amount of rainfall we experienced during our stay didn’t ruin the crop too much!



Haystack and honeybee

The local people were very friendly and welcoming: we visited a small bee farm which made the most delicious honey, a buffalo farm and a small farm where we got to have a go at hand milking the cows. This visit was made all the better by the copious amounts of wine, cheese and cherries provided by the lovely farmer and his wife! The village of Richis was home to an abundance of birds adapted to live alongside people: we saw house and tree sparrows, swallow and house martins nesting under eaves, black redstarts calling from the rooftops and a white stork nest on a tall chimney. There was also a greater mouse-eared bat maternity colony in the belfry of the church: we stood under the roost and heard their excited chattering.

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Scarce swallowtail and Short-tailed blue butterflies

The expedition was like going back in time: the countryside was managed by the local community, horse and carts were a regular form of transport, and there was little or no use of chemicals on the land. Many species that have become extinct or are rare in the UK are common in this region. Going back home to the UK and revisiting our degraded landscape was a stark reminder of what we once had, but have now largely lost. I believe the Romanians of the Tarnava Mare region are all the richer for possessing such natural wonders that have been completely or almost destroyed in the UK. Perhaps witnessing such rich mixed farmed ecosystems on the other side of Europe can inspire us to protect and recreate these special habitats on our small, overcrowded island.



Horse and cart ride to Biertan and Marbled white butterfly