FEATURES / Nature conservation
Romania may not boast industrial wealth but it has riches galore in a countryside unsullied by the agribusiness of its new European Union partners. But can its traditional farming methods and abundance of flora and fauna long banished from the fields of Britain continue to thrive? / By MICHAEL McCARTHY
Making hay in Transylvania
IT’S NOT only people who can be defamed; countries can be defamed as well, sometimes with very few words; and there is no doubt that the widely reported remarks last month by United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage that many people would be concerned if a group of men from Romania moved in next door successfully cast an insalubrious light on that unfamiliar land.
This was despite Farage’s subsequent semiapology; for if you know next to nothing about a nation, any controversial comment about it is something you will register, for good or ill, and the Ukip leader’s unmistakable inference that the inhabitants of Eastern Europe’s Latin quarter, or at least those of them seeking to reside in Britain, are nothing but a band of felons, cutpurses and footpads cannot but have made an impression.
So let me counter it here with another vision of Romania, one informed by 10 days I have just spent in the country and one that is quite different from Farage’s; for whereas the adjective at the heart of his view of the place might, let’s be honest, be something like “dodgy”, the epithet at the heart of mine would be more like “wondrous”.
That is not offered lightly; but what Romania has to give is indeed a source of wonder, in one area in particular – the natural world. In its rural landscapes and in its wildlife, it presents not only a beauty that is quite unparalleled, but an abundance, a profusion of riches of wild flowers, insects, birds and animals, which is quite overwhelming and which is but a distant memory in Britain.
The reason is simple: modern intensive farming, with its panoply of chemical poisons and mechanical assaults on the countryside, has in many places not yet arrived, although as the nation has been a full member of the European Union since 2007 there is a widespread fear that the ravages of the Common Agricultural Policy, which has wreaked so much destruction on nature in this country, cannot be long in coming.
That was not the least of the motives for me recently joining a group of British wildlife enthusiasts, mainly botanists and mainly retired, in an extensive exploration of the Romanian countryside and its wildlife: to see it before it goes. It did not disappoint. In fact, it far exceeded expectations. And at
FIELD SCABIOUS, one of the varieties of wild flower that flourish in Romania’s meadows the heart of it all was Transylvania.
“That a real place?” said a friend I told about my trip last week. “I thought it was just, like in movies and stuff. You know. Dracula.” Transylvania and its most famous inhabitant, the vampire Count D, have indeed been favourites of Hollywood in the wake of the eponymous Gothic horror novel by the Irishman Bram Stoker, first published in 1897. But it is most assuredly real: it is Romania’s heartland, the central province, tucked inside the two arms, easterly and southerly, of the whopping great Carpathian Mountains.
It presents a gentle green landscape in essence similar to that of Britain, of woods and meadows, although without the hedges that have patchwork-quilted our own countryside since the agricultural enclosures of 200 years ago. In fact, it is what preenclosure England might well have looked like. And that is because in many ways its own agriculture is still medieval.
LAST WEEK, they were making hay. The men were cutting the grass in the hay meadows with sweeps of their scythes, and the cut grass was being tossed with pitchforks on to horsedrawn carts. It could have been a scene from a Constable painting. The farmers need the hay to feed their horses, which are still ubiquitous in Romanian agriculture, whereas in Britain, where horsepower has virtually vanished from farming, hay has gone with it, replaced by silage, intensively produced monoculture grassland that rots down to a gunk to be fed to cattle.
So our hay meadows have also disappeared – and these are the most wild-flower-rich of all habitats. You have to travel many a mile to find a good one in Britain – we have lost an estimated 97 per cent of them since the Second World War – but on my initial morning in Romania they lined the street of the mountain village in which we were staying.
In the first one, which was quite small, I counted 27 wild-flower species amid the grasses, from field scabious to hedge bedstraw, from ragged robin to green-winged orchid, from germander speedwell to spreading bellflower, all contributing to a stunning animated chaos of colour.
Yet some of the pastures, the wider grasslands that are not cut for hay but grazed for livestock, are even more varied botanically, and I retain a vivid memory of walking through millions and millions of blooms of dropwort and yellow rattle, forming an endless carpet of white and gold.
INSECTS CROWD these grasslands like shoals of fish in the sea – grasshoppers and crickets, lovely beetles like the rose chafer, stunning butterflies like the poplar admiral, the Hungarian glider and the clouded Apollo – and the bird fauna is just as rich, with redbacked shrikes everywhere and golden orioles giving their fluting whistles from the poplar trees. And there are bears in all the woods.
It is the richest landscape, in wildlife terms, I think I will ever see (and I am in debt to the tour leader, the naturalist and photographer Bob Gibbons, for his matchless knowledge of it all). Can it be preserved? Perhaps. The Romanian Government is at last waking up to its remarkable wildlife heritage, and ecotourism offers an alternative way forward to the brutality of agricultural intensification.
The Prince of Wales has taken a keen interest in saving this lost farming world (he owns two rural guest houses in Romania) and supports two bodies with English connections working to preserve it, the Adept Foundation and the Mihai Eminescu Trust. All of them see that it is special. Anyone who goes to Transylvania does. I certainly did. But you won’t find out about it, listening to Nigel Farage.
Michael McCarthy is the environment columnist of The Independent.
10 | THE TABLET | 28 JUNE 2014