Future Farm Lab Vol 4: Sophie 'The Nature of Transylvanian Farming'

I’m writing this from a baking hot ‘office’ - a barn, with tarpaulin for walls. For the past two weeksand the next five and a half, I am spending seven days and nights in each of seven villages in rural Transylvania. Together with the Operation Wallacea team, I am carrying out surveys in this small corner of Europe that sits on the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. 

Romania itself is a fast developing country, its economy has been boosted hugely since joining the EU in 2007, and roads are big, fast, and being rapidly expanded across the country - a cheap and newly discovered haven for European holiday makers.

Just three hours from the busy airport of Cluj, and considerably north from Bucharest is rural Transylvania - the site of my research for this project. Once I turned off the main road and approached the tiny valleys on my arrival, I could almost count the years of the clock roll back as the car drove closer to our research destination. 

 This is the most common way to travel among the locals - whether you're collecting crops or hay, or just out to visit a neighbour. 

This is the most common way to travel among the locals - whether you're collecting crops or hay, or just out to visit a neighbour. 

In each of 8 valleys surrounding the Tarnava Mare lies a small village, equipped with a road, more often than not - a small shop, and less often - some phone signal. These villages are the core of our project, and the landscapes around them contain some of the richest biodiversity Europe boasts. Transylvania contains between 70 and 80% of Europe’s bear population, wolves, plenty of wild cats and many wild boar. Just a stroll through the forest reveals many of these prints and confirms the current presence of a huge range of endangered european mammals. 

But why do these villages and the hills surrounding them contain such amazing wildlife? The secret lies in the three landscapes that straddle the valleys - on low lands we see crops: lucern, triticale, oats, maize, wheat. Higher up, you can stroll through incredibly diverse grass meadows which contain hundreds of positive indicator plants, rare butterflies and grasshoppers. Finally, on the hilltops of the valleys are the wooded forests, with high canopies and plenty of muddy pools. 

The most important thing to mention when I talk about the landscape surrounding these Transylvanian villages is that they are not natural. These landscapes exist because of the ancient farming methods that are used by the villagers of Romania. Off the beaten track, they have fallen between the cracks of the Romanian government and are living in relative poverty to the rest of their country. As such, their farming methods remain undeveloped, hay is often still cut by scythe and carried by horse and cart, communal milking herds are shared by the village and crops are grown for the dinner table. 

It is because of this lifestyle that the landscape is stratified into three regions - the lack of tractors and large 4x4s means the land must be worked with rather than against.  The stratification of farmland caused by the contours of the valleys means that we can see huge richness in the species of butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets, plants, birds, moths, small mammals and large mammals. 

My research in Romania is focussed on talking to each of the farmers in these isolated villages - those with just one cow in the garden, those with five hectares and even those with 200 buffalo - to identify the trends and changes in their farming habits. The real world can’t be held from these saxon villages for ever, and more and more tractors are being used to cut hay and plough fields, causing changes in the surrounding habitats. 

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I are carrying out surveys on species richness in the villages and the surrounding hills. Our studies then allow us to compare how wildlife is dealing with the gradual changes in Transylvanian farming. 

 A gloomy day but still a beautiful outlook. 

A gloomy day but still a beautiful outlook. 

Obviously the biodiversity is likely to be compromised by these changing farming habits but already through talking to these farmers I can see what a tough life subsistence farming is for them. These villagers often live in houses of two rooms, cut hay by hand by day and milk their cows by night. The truth is that this biodiversity is supported by the necessity of subsistence farming that comes hand in hand with being poor. How can we encourage small scale farmers to cut hay by hand when they have finally - 50 years after everybody else - got access to tractors and cars? 

This biodiversity is indispensable, but is only maintained by the poverty of Transylvanians living in extremely isolated villages.

I have to admit that I had little idea of this catch-22 when I first accepted this project. It’s easy when living in luxury, to idealise the ‘simple life’ and throw around advice to cut hay by hand and minimise tractor use. But when I came face to face with the face that it’s someone’s livelihood at stake, this problem became a lot more complex. 

This is just the first instalment, so I’ll be continuing to speak to villagers to learn about their struggles and successes, learning Romanian, sitting in the forest at night on the look out for bears, and getting used to four weeks of camping and cold showers… 

Sophie Ann Perry