Europe's Ark

 Pre-Dawn in the Southern Carpathian Mountains

The glory of a spring meadow, kaleidoscopic with colour and floral diversity, has become a thing of distant memory in Britain.  In a recent report by Natural England, upland meadow now only constitutes a few square miles, mainly in the North Pennines. 

Modern farming has been pitiless in converting these once widespread meadows into ‘improved’ grass-dominant silage and hay lots.  As a consequence of pursuing yield we have seen a plunge in both plant diversity and the insect species that rely on them.  Bee and butterfly populations have plummeted in recent years, predicting an ominous future in food security.  Though it has not been proved beyond doubt by science that loss of wildflowers is the dominant factor in this decline, it is not hard to make a simple link.

By contrast, traditional farming is still common practice in large parts of Eastern Europe.  Romania (and the Carpathian mountains in particular) preserves some of the finest meadow land remaining, a reminder of how sustainable farming reaps more than economic benefits.  Known in the west as Transylvania and associated with the undead Count, you are more likely to encounter beauty and tradition here than vampires, the hospitality warm rather than garlic festooned.

 Every Meadow is a Wildlife Haven

Visit in the late spring as I did (May/June) and there is an extra reward - the peaking of the high meadows in vivid colour - a sight now rare in western Europe.  The farmers of Magura, a pastoral hamlet about an hour west of Brasov, appear refreshingly welcoming of visitors, with invitations to enter meadows for closer inspection being commonplace.

 Shepherd in the high meadows

The meadows surrounding the scattered hamlet drape over the ridges and slopes, patch worked onto them by rustic wooden fences that weave like stitch work across the land.  The meadows are hemmed in by beech forests on the steep slopes below and spruce at the higher limit.  Together these forest types harbour Europe’s largest populations of wolves and brown bears, which will venture into the hamlet in winter and make off with a sheep or two.  Any season will reward the photographer with rich opportunity; autumn is richly coloured and prone to cool mists and snow lies deep in winter.

 Architectural detail, Magura

Spring and summer are easier and more peaceful however.  The single species of flower that jumps out when you wander through these cradles of genetic diversity is yellow rattle, which plays a uniquely important role in how the meadows look.  It is neither the most obvious nor even the most numerous but it is the species that is ubiquitous.   Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is parasitic on the roots of grasses, which otherwise would dominate any of these dry, limestone meadows.  By introducing an element of balance, through tempering the natural vigour of grass, other species flourish under yellow rattle’s benevolent reign.  And what a flourishing; there is an absence of any order or artifice to the arrangement of colour and form.  This is every plant for itself and the result is one of nature’s glories, albeit with the careful input of man.

 Viper's Bugloss
 Carthusian Pink
Ragged Robin

Species to be seen include dianthus (especially the Carthusian pink, photographed), cornflowers in every shade, vetches in yellow and purple, mallow, the deepest purple  of viper’s bugloss (pictured), foxes and cubs, delicate lilac harebells, scabious in yellows and lilacs, and lucern.  There are clovers of many species, violas and flaxes, cranesbills and rockrose, self-heal, meadow clary, betony and a host of orchids.  Red spikes of sorrel stand proud, and drifts of Michaelmas daisies lend a strikingly showy counterpoint to the riot of pastels.  Bellflower, campion and ragged robin (above) fill in any gaps that remain, along with the grasses of course.  In all, 50 or more species can be found in any small sample.

 Farmyard, Magura

On the back of all this bounty the insect life prospers, with a pleasant hum emanating from the hillsides that begins well before dawn, about the time the men of the village set out to harvest, scythes balanced on shoulders.   Mechanisation has yet to reach these traditional hill farms, and the seed gets every chance to re-sow the ground as the men work.  There is something ordained about the way these meadows are managed, and it is a privilege to have watched them work in the cool dawn light (see photo).  A shared "Buna dimineata" (good morning) erased any awkwardness. 

 Harvesting, the ancient way.

There appears little sign of pollinator collapse in these meadows;  they are oases of calm and order.  It is hard not to draw conclusions, anecdotal as they may be, that this way of land management is better for all concerned.  Things are continuing, much as they always have done (and I hope will always do), in the mountains of Carpathia.

Crooked wooden barns populate these Transylvanian hillsides, waiting to receive their provender in the last weeks of May.  But first the cutting must be dried, and as you would expect it is done in traditional stacks and ricks, sometimes utilising wooden props where the slopes are steep.  And in the meantime, out in the meadows, the summer species are rejuvenating the hillsides with a whole other range of floral delights, a second harvest for late summer.

But Transylvania cannot be secured against the advance of modern methods and the pursuit of profit.  As photographers and tourists, we can provide an argument to preserve the meadows, support a way of life and ensure biodiversity remains a draw card of these mountains.  Go there, contribute to the communities that look after these arks, and I guarantee you a photographic experience to remember.

Barn and Fence

The People of Magura village.

The state of the natural environment is largely down to the people who live in these scattered villages of Bran, the 'county' that contains hamlets like Magura.  Transhumance (the movement of livestock to graze high summer pastures) is still practised.  I spent a night in a tent at a shepherd camp above the spruce tree line which provided more opportunities for capturing the mood of the place.  Huge dogs with spiked bear collars appeared as enigmatic as the horse borne shepherds and cattle herders that kept them in check.  On Sunday we visited the local church where I awkwardly photographed the congregation, itself a scene from history.

These people are the custodians of this land, not as elsewhere the exploiters of it.  They are not wealthy people and the pressure to change, sell up and move on may be too strong.  I'm hopeful; long may gentle tradition preserve a balance in these Carpathian hills. 

Magura church - social and cultural hub of Transylvania.
Milk measuring - penned cattle being milked. This was then made into cheese in the log cabin on site.
Mountain weather on Piatra Craiului - near the shepherd's camp.
A shepherd in the alpine meadows, circa 1500m
Sunday at Church Widow's seats
Driving the Flock - transhumance in action. The Green House

I was hosted by Katerina and Herman at Vila Hermani ( http://cntours.ro/en) in the hamlet of Magura, west of Brasov in Transylvania.  They have been instrumental in establishing the National Park that surrounds the meadows and in the Large Carnivore Project that operates across Romania.

More information on the meadows of the Carpathian Mountains can be found at http://www.fundatia-adept.org/

Large Carnivore Project:  http://www.clcp.ro/

More on visiting Romania:  http://www.romaniatourism.com/ 

My images of Magura and Transylvania; http://brettmeiklephoto.smugmug.com/Travel/Transylvania/18916741_RfTgQ6#1467371572_B5hggCf

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

maxdance
By maxdance (7 months ago)

A lovely tale laddie!

0 upvotes