SNH was recently host to a fascinating discussion about sustainable landscapes but, unusually for SNH, these landscapes were in Romania. Folk from a range of backgrounds gathered to hear impressions from two SNH speakers: Area Manager, Forth, Andy Dorin and Woodlands Advisor, Kate Holl. Both had been to Romania and come back impressed with a “magical and historic land”, rich in biodiversity.
Andy started the evening, describing his visit to rural Transylvania along with other Scots the previous August, through the Arch organisation, funded by the European Union Erasmus Programme. Travelling with others from Scotland through the Arch Network, Andy told of a journey into rural Romania, and in particular a visit to two farms in the Apuseni Mountains.
Here the agriculture is very traditional with the land producing nearly all the food for the people in the area with absolutely no food miles. As well as admiring the horticulture in gardens around the village, the visitors saw cattle grazed across summer pastures by herders, and hay meadows abounding in wildflowers. The farming is still based on a strip cultivation pattern so requires co-operation between neighbours and is undertaken without fertilisers. The hay crop is either cut by hand using scythes or cropped using a pedestrian finger bar mower, largely because the terrain does not favour heavy machinery. One positive consequence is that the low impact on the ground maintains soil structure leaving ant colonies unscathed, which also helps the rare large blue butterfly, which develops in the anthills.
Kate first visited Romania to participate in the hay harvest. After a crash course in scything technique, she and her family participated in cropping and gathering the hay. As a holiday it was very hard work but the completion was ultimately rewarded by a celebratory village feast. Kate described the amazing richness of the hay meadows, which are generally accepted to be some of the richest in Europe. Kate went on to describe how she had seen the extensive use of wood pasture, where cattle are grazed in woodland that is also used for timber and nut production and for leaf hay (a practice that has now died out in Scotland). Kate suggested that sympathetically-grazed and well-managed productive woodlands could feature much more in a sustainable Scottish landscape.
As well as the rich biodiversity, Andy described the distinctive vernacular architecture and cultural traditions of the different ethnic communities – predominately Hungarian, Romanian and Saxon, touching on traditional dishes, needlework and art. The Transylvanian villages of the Apuseni feature steep-sided roofs without chimneys, thatched with longstraw laid flat (in contrast to the vertical slope of Scottish thatch) and laced with juniper to discourage mice. Smoke rises and dissipates through the thatch avoiding a fug below.
The major town of Cluja Naponica and the fortress city of Alba Iulia were architecturally stunning and represented a major potential tourist draw. Outside the main towns, villages were steeped in history and in the extensive natural woodland, wolves and bears were common. European bison have also recently been re-released.
So what had the two learned? Kate pointed out that this alternative model for agriculture, although hard work, resulted in a very sustainable existence that met all the villagers’ needs. It also was incredibly rich in biodiversity and is very low-carbon farming. She was keen to emphasise the lessons to be learned around the use of woodland as a managed resource for both timber and pasture. Of course the area is not without its challenges: both speakers had observed much depopulation and some abandonment of land but there were many positives to be drawn from this sort of land use. One challenge is the small scale of the holdings – less than 4ha and therefore ineligible for European agri-environment measures.
Debates after the talk were enlivened by the presence of Graham Carnie, Director of the Romanian Development Group, as well as SNH’s own Chief Executive Francesca Osowska, and several of the audience had travelled some distance to attend. There was discussion on how culture, traditional villages and landuse were all at threat as young people left the area in search of employment. With such a unique biodiversity resource represented by the hay fields of Transylvania, how could we in Scotland play our part as good Europeans in supporting Romania in valuing this asset?
One thing that we in Scotland can do is raise awareness of this resource, which helps it being recognised at home and in Europe. There were many opportunities for diversification based on local produce and crafts, and the traditional thatched barns and houses would make excellent holiday cottages. However, there was also much discussion of what could be learned for Scotland. Particularly striking was the people-centred management of the land, and the group asked how we might foster this in Scotland. In terms of future action the group agreed to stay in touch by email and Andy hoped to organise a biological recording trip to the area in 2019 (and would welcome anyone interested to get in touch). But the evening was also simply an opportunity to celebrate the nature of another special part of Europe and the fraternity and understanding it had generated.