Dr Barbara Knowles FSB, Senior Science Policy Adviser at the Society of Biology, devotes much of her time to preserving Transylvania’s hay meadows. Dr Laura Bellingan FSB, Head of Policy at the Society of Biology, visited her recently and has written about her experience:
If I’m asked to think of biodiversity hot-spots worthy of conservation, wilderness areas with sparse if any human populations tend to come to mind. Certainly, long-established farmland wouldn’t be my first guess.
However, as surprisingly often is the case, the seemingly obvious answer is wide of the mark! It is indeed true that an island of biodiversity, with statistics that rival wilderness areas has been created by centuries of dairy farming in rural Transylvania.
My colleague Barbara Knowles visited this area almost five years ago. She was so enchanted by its unique and complex ecology, natural beauty and friendly people that she has devoted much of her time since to preserving the area’s treasures.
Having heard tales and seen photos, I finally visited Barbara in Gymes, a village in the Pagan-Havas region for myself. I timed the visit so as to attend the Mountain Haymeadow Conference that she and colleagues were hosting. The aim of the conference was to discuss current research and policy relevant to this and the rare few similar areas in Eastern Europe.
The journey involved a flight to Bucharest and a long roadtrip through varied landscape. Croplands with medium-sized plots of conventional crops, open-cast mines and industrial complexes gradually gave way to higher ground and woodland with more sporadic agriculture.
The mountains around our final destination were not rolling hills amenable to mechanisation of farming, but 45o slopes tamed only by people and animals. For generations the mountains’ grassland harvest has been by hand and scythe with the collected hay being dragged to barns on wooden pallets pulled by horses.
The purpose of this harvest of course is the winter feeding of cattle, not large herds but the one or two cows kept by each household for individual needs. This area of small farms has been created by history as well as geology.
Age-old land ownership practices and entitlements have distributed narrow strips of land around each village to the local families. Each family usually owns a strip near home and a strip of mountainside.
The fact that the farms are small in size reduces the farm subsidies available through national and EU mechanisms. However, the farming practices contribute to the local wealth of the environmental assets.
Biodiverse ecosystems with rare and endemic species are valued by high-level policies, although the existing mechanisms do not translate that nominal value into economic benefit for the farmers. If local farming does not provide adequate livelihoods, rural depopulation may well follow, and if so the ecology will change.
There is no easy solution, but Barbara’s work is addressing the human and ecological challenges.
A team from National Geographic also visited recently and you can read about their experiences