Conserving the grasslands of Transylvania

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Dry species-rich grassland, with spires of Red Viper’s-bugloss (Echium maculatum), listed on Appendix II of EU Habitats Directive as being of international conservation concern. (photo: Tibor Hartel)

The grasslands of Transylvania contain a wealth of biodiversity but are increasingly under threat from intensification of agriculture, overgrazing and abandonment of land. Anglo-Romanian NGO, Fundatia ADEPT, is currently working on a programme to support farmers and also protect biodiversity.

Biodiversity research has devoted much attention to natural and pristine habitats. However, in Europe, most ecosystems derive from millennia of farming, and few natural or semi-natural habitats survive. Also, farmland that is traditionally managed often proves richer in biodiversity than adjacent semi-natural habitats. Unfortunately, little of this type of farmed landscape survives, certainly on any scale – except in parts of Eastern Europe, such as southern Transylvania in Romania.

Southern Transylvania’s relatively unspoilt countryside yields a glimpse of an older Europe. Here, from the 12th–13th centuries German settlers (known in Romania as ‘Saxons’) built non-feudal planned villages, with fortified churches and self-sufficient but mutually supportive farms, nurturing the land through careful husbandry. Most Saxons left Transylvania for Germany during the political upheavals of the early 1990s, but their practical and cultural legacy endures, especially the mosaic of biodiversity-rich farmland habitats, interspersed with scrub and beech, hornbeam and oak woodland with a diverse natural flora. This is the only lowland farmed landscape in Europe that retains viable populations of wolves and bears.

Some 40% of the landscape is wooded. Farms, barns, yards and gardens blend into a tapestry of orchards, hop-fields, arable, pasture and hay-meadow, the grasslands a profusion of colourful wildflowers from May to July, also in spring and autumn. The grassland has particularly impressed visiting scientists, as so much can be classed as High Nature Value (HNV), a subjective but useful designation. It remains the powerhouse of the rural economy, supporting animal husbandry and providing a range of products such as honey and medicinal plants.

One cannot over-estimate the cultural and botanical importance of this landscape and the importance of protecting its resources of wild plants, animals and habitats

The rolling hills and steep glens of the Saxon Villages are mostly formed by layers of marl, which is not only calcareous, supporting a grassland flora broadly similar to that on the chalk in Britain and northern Europe, but also slumps readily on steeper slopes, thus diversifying the grassland habitats. On the hillsides, and on a smaller scale on hillocks or movile, a geological feature of the area, the meadows – HNV ‘meadow-steppes’– are a natural garden of colourful wildflowers. This mix of pan-European, steppic and Mediterranean plants, with some woodland species, survives as a result of traditional and mixed farming in harmony with landscape and biodiversity. A characteristic Transylvanian grassland element is 20–30 or more species of clovers, vetches and dwarf brooms.

The grasslands are rich too in orchids, mostly Red-listed in Romania, which help to qualify them for EU listing under the Habitats Directive. They also support a varied insect fauna, notably butterflies and moths, crickets and mantids, and bees and other hymenoptera. Birds that have disappeared over much of Europe, such as such as corncrake, quail, lesser-spotted eagle and (in thorny scrub) several species of shrike, remain widespread in these ecosystems. Conservation efforts have thus been concentrated on grasslands.

Maintaining the richness

The Saxons formed an independent conservative society. Agriculture was traditional and un-mechanized: mowing by scythe, weeding by hoe, few or no fertilizers or chemical sprays, free-range poultry, and horse-drawn wagons and machinery. Tractors are now replacing horses, but mixed farming survives, and at dawn cattle, goats and horses leave the barns for communal pastures, returning at dusk. This is closer to 18th-century than contemporary Europe, and retains patterns of the life of the original medieval farming community, although everything is changing fast. The Saxon Villages farmers and their families need incomes and living standards to rise, but it would be a great ecological and cultural loss should the region become over-dominated by modern intensive farming.

It was to strengthen and secure the links between biodiversity, small-scale mixed farming and quality food production that in 2004 we established an Anglo-Romanian NGO, Fundatia ADEPT (Agricultural Development and Environmental Protection in Transylvania), to promote and facilitate an innovative programme of conservation and rural development. At that time the rural economy was near collapse, especially after the departure of most of the skilled Saxons.

ADEPT Romania May 2006 022

Yellow Pheasant’s-eye (Adonis vernalis), widespread in dry grassland in the Saxon Villages, is rare in much of Europe. This is one of several medicinal plants gathered by local people in Transylvania (photo: Bob Gibbons/Natural Image)

ADEPT has since carried out biological recording, research and mapping, working with Transylvanian universities; provided assistance for subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers to access agri-environment and other funding; helped to rebuild rural infrastructure (notably new or refurbished milk-collection points), promoted and enabled farmers markets, traditional crafts and skills (such as jam production) and ecotourism, including cycle paths; and encouraged public participation through courses for farmers, lectures and illustrated publications.

ADEPT staff have been active locally, nationally and internationally in the design and implementation of EU and Romanian measures to help small-scale farmers achieve better incomes and protect biodiversity, making biodiversity conservation integral to farming. Other local NGOs and initiatives are also active, especially in the ecotourism sphere, and there is a growing spirit of enterprise in the Saxon Villages.

Biodiversity under threat

When in 2000 we had began to take first steps towards nature conservation in the Saxon Villages, we were astonished at the sheer wealth of biodiversity. However, since then we have become increasingly aware of just how damaged the many habitats that appeared semi-pristine are, and we have recorded accelerating trends that threaten their future. The two basic threats are intensification of agriculture, with overgrazing; and abandonment of land, leading to scrub encroachment and loss of grassland.

At present farmers, for economic reasons, use few artificial fertilizers, which would raise fertility but replace diverse swards with coarse grasses. Existing plant diversity far surpasses anything achievable by artificial and expensive reseeding. Many meadows have at some time been arable land, but the prolific seed-rain allows fallow land to return to wildflower-rich grassland.

Romania’s EU accession in January 2007 has brought funding to agriculture, but it is not clear how much the various grants support either small-scale farmers or biodiversity. Certainly, some farmers and shepherds are benefiting from agri-environment grants, but their distribution is uneven and has led to local intensification of agriculture (such as greatly increased numbers of sheep) by a relatively small number of individuals.

Nor have there been enough checks on progress or proper monitoring of management regimes. Meadow (mown grassland) has always been distinct from pasture (grazed), but new landowners, often wealthy incomers, are increasing sheep numbers and ignoring traditional land-use. An EU agri-environment measure has recently led to considerable clearance of scrub that had invaded grassland. However, cut material is left in piles, creating barriers to mowing and grazing, and concentrating nutrients as it decays. The result may well be infestations of weeds. And many scrubby grasslands still remain.

One cannot over-estimate the cultural and botanical importance of this landscape and the importance of protecting its resources of wild plants, animals and habitats. Non-intensive mixed farming, not necessarily organic, offers the best sustainable solution – and a living for village people, alongside ecotourism and traditional crafts and skills.

The wildflower-rich meadows and pastures comprise an essential element in the rural economy of Transylvania, as well as being a genetic resource of forage legumes and providing ecological goods and services such as maintaining the health and integrity of soils and water supplies. They are also a living link with an older Europe, its ecology and landscape.

Acknowledgements

I thank my colleague Nat Page, Director of Fundatia ADEPT, for critically reading the manuscript of this article.

Fundatia ADEPT is grateful to its sponsors and supporters, especially Fundatia Orange, which has generously funded our work since the inception of the project.

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