Romania: Nou Săsesc – The Land of Up

June – August 2016

My colleague: “And how was your day?”

Me: “Steep.”

The hills look innocent; there are worse cliffs in the North Downs. And yet…

I’m glad – immeasurably glad – that my red hiking pole was rescued. Nou Săsesc, like all Saxon villages in Transylvania, is firmly embedded in the very lowest part of a valley. It is a lean network of dusty streets straddling a river flush with knotweed. From afar, it exists only as a smattering of red rooftops.

Nou Sasesc arrival

We’re now almost exactly in the geographical centre of Romania. Horses ferried us half the journey from Richis, pulling open wooden carts – their drivers shouting cheerfully as they overtake each other, tethered horses on the roadside calling to their brethren as wheels rattled by.

horse taxi

The horses stopped at an ancient fortified church, giving us a moment to ponder deeper mysteries.

Church statue

Then the journey continued on foot, high into meadows abloom with colour.

NS flower

Several hours later, we approach Nou Săsesc, our base for the next week. There are more vehicles here than Richis; a young girl speeds past on a bicycle with no hands on the bars. One house even has tennis courts, and a helicopter regularly buzzes overhead. There is a village shop which sells Lays crisps and chocolate, but it opens at a different time every day.

Our two survey transects loop outwards, east and west. And outwards, in Nou Săsesc language, means Up.

They start so gently…

NS transect

But those hills are far grimmer than they look.

It is, sometimes literally, a case of one step up and three back. Gravity argues with anyone trying to look for mammal sign on these transects. I stab my hiking pole into mud, edge upwards, scanning the forest floor for bear tracks while posed on what feels like a vertical path. The hills tumble into improbable ravines and sheer-sided gullies. Scrambling, we win the ridge – and see the high Carpathians lining the further horizon like the jawbone of a monstrous beast.

Carpathians from NS

Up here there are bear and badger tracks; there are also dazzling longhorn beetles that would fit well in the tropics.

Longhorn beetle

I have a datasheet with fieldsign of bears recorded on it; today’s survey is completed. We contemplate getting down.

Walkable land simply ends, tumbling into a dusty waterfall of beech leaves. We sit down and slide off it, down, down, down…into a maize field.

That, at least, is flat.

Romania: Richis Storms

June – August 2016

We were setting up hedgehog tracking tunnels on the woodland edge when the sky lost its light and the land turned emerald.

Storm coming RI 250616

Camera: off.

Survey: off.

We run, but the rain runs faster, and throws itself into hair and eyes with an almost human malice. I toss my beloved metal hiking pole into a bush because lightning couldn’t find a better conductor.

Somehow we reach the road, where the cows are waiting for evening milking and a foal grazes idly alongside his parents. The thunder and lightning are almost simultaneous. My boots have withstood the puddles but the insides are afloat. Camp is also awash, with students diving into puddles.

Morning brings sunshine – and bears, or at least their footprints, admired as we rescue my poor hiking stick. Richis is altogether rich in mammal sign. Roe deer, not least; unusually for deer, they scrape away leaves to create a sleeping space, leaving a bare patch about 60cm wide.

Roe deer bedding area

It is the roe deer’s rutting season, and at night their barks sound even over the endless yapping of village dogs. The early morning teams often spot them but most of my sightings are through the army of camera traps that I’ve deployed in these woods.

Snapshot_7

Snapshot_7c

The cameras are also starting to catch some exciting carnivores. Pine martens are the larger of the two marten species that endlessly bounce, leap and climb through Transylvania.

Snapshot_7a

Amazingly, the same camera caught an edible dormouse! This is found in Britain too – it was introduced to Cheshire decades ago. It is a much larger species than the hazel dormice that I study in Surrey.

Snapshot_7b

Meanwhile, hawk-moths dazzle in camp.

Richis post7

Leaving Richis is difficult. But six more villages await.

Romania: Richis – the Garden’s Keepers

June – August 2016

I think I remember last night. My plane landed at Tirgu Mures near a building saying Transilvania. The road south was dark, and winding, with stony villages flashing in our headlights, and lightning exploding like gigantic disco lights over the hills, dancing on, and on…

Morning is hot, sticky and nearly British. The rolling hills topped with patchy woodland could so easily be Surrey sans motorways, but stepping upon dusty roads, that illusion is rapidly diluted by sweat. The temperature is closer to Mexico, and lizards relish the heat.

Sand lizard v1

Eastern green lizard

We are Here.

Home is now a tent in a courtyard. Slate-roofed buildings rise behind with little mortar, and the bricks slump together in picturesque coalescence. A village can be old yet hide its years – but not Richis. You can feel the stories by every door.

Richis post3

Richis post6

But this is no museum. Richis works, and breathes, and its people harvest the fields – the roads are full of farmers with rakes and children driving horses.

Richis post2

Over the next two months, we will take a snapshot of Transylvania’s biodiversity. I’m leading the large mammal work; other scientists come prepared for birds, reptiles, flowers, small mammals, butterflies – if we can count it, there’s a datasheet for it.

We will travel from village to village, walking transects and carrying survey equipment through buzzing meadows and impossibly steep forests.

And we’re starting here, in Richis, which the Saxons called Reichesdorf when they built it so very long ago.

Church in Richis2

The clock is ten minutes out of sync. It sings on the hour, and then again a few minutes later, and nobody knows why. Storks and tree sparrows nest nearby, uncaring that the fortified church once provided refuge against eastern invaders.

The Saxon settlers have gone; since World War II, most have returned to their ancestral lands. In their wake remain colourful little villages that brighten human cultural heritage – and the richest wildlife in agricultural Europe.

West transect RI 230616

These haybales are in bear country. Massive brown bears lumber through this landscape as they have for generations, but it is the abundance of smaller creatures that brings home just how much wildlife thrives when agriculture treads lightly.

This is a striped field mouse.

Striped mouse2

And this, a stag beetle.

Stag beetle

Agricultural revolution strangled Europe’s wildlife. I have watched extinctions because of it in my home part of Surrey. Pesticides, herbicides and machines raised production to support eye-watering city growth, but they also have brought rural unemployment and the worst biodiversity crisis that the continent has faced in the last 10,000 years.

Transylvania is almost the last sanctuary of old, small-scale farming. People still do things the way that they were always done. Grass is cut with sickles and cows plod through the streets at milking-time. Foals play on roadsides, and carts clatter through the dust.

I want to meet the guardians of this medieval farmscape.

Farm lady in Richis

This lady keeps five cows, twenty sheep and one horse. She grows garlic in her vegetable patch near the well, and a dog is on patrol. It all creates a diverse landscape matrix so much shockingly richer in life than the vast, pesticide-laced monocrop fields typical of Britain and France.

Richis post5

Firework is stacked for winter, not that it is easy to think of snow while being battled by the blistering June sun.

Stacked firewood

Her smallholding is not only environmentally sound, but also practically self-sufficient. And every year, survey teams ask the Transylvanian farmers how their lives are changing. In an age when younger generations are desperate to work for higher wages in Italy, and modern regulations are a mixed blessing, it is not clear what the future of this farm will be. But without traditional farmers, there are no traditional farms to support Transylvania’s wild things.

In any case, I need to head up in the hills to document those creatures, armed with camera traps, a tracking guide and hope.

Romania: Timewarp

June 2016

I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.

Meadows at Daia2

This is not Surrey, although it greatly resembles it. We do have some precious fragments of untarnished wildflower meadows in the North Downs, and I’m fighting to protect them. One of the things that gives me energy in that battle is the memory of another, wilder meadow, one where I was privileged to spend eight weeks last year, tracking wildcats and bears through fields that have never known a tractor’s fumes.

This is Romania – to be exact, Transylvania, the horseshoe of farmland ringed by the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. It is almost the last place in Europe where farming is still genuinely environmentally sustainable. Tiny, family-owned farms grow a few vegetables, and there’s still time to take cattle for a walk.

Walking the cow

Harvest needs a horse.

Bringing the hay home

At Transylvania’s heart are the 12th century Saxon villages, built by the kings of Hungary with fortified churches to hold back the Ottomans and Tatar invaders. During the project, I stayed in seven of them, learning the landscape while collecting data on carnivores who leave fieldsign as blatant as this:

Bear scratch marks 270616

The scratches are the handiwork of a brown bear, Europe’s largest carnivoran south of the Arctic. Transylvania has a widespread bear population, and although I don’t trust Romania’s official figures for wildlife, bears are certainly doing far better in these orchid-rich meadows than in the rest of lowland Europe combined.

So, I’ll recount my stories from all seven of the Saxon villages over the next few days. Travel back in time to a world where horses outnumber cars and wildcats drink from unnamed streams…

Meadows Mesendorf

Brothers: The Horse Meadow Foxes

I live on a boundary-line unknown to human diplomats: the frontier of two wildly different fox families runs straight through my back garden.

To the north live the Across the Road group. They are maverick, street-smart survivors who have had to navigate not only a dangerous main road but also serious habitat loss.

The Horse Meadows Group come from the south. Bold, curious and enduring, they are headed up by this chap, a one-eyed fox known locally as Nelson. I have always called him ‘One-Eye’.

Fox One-Eye sunshine 5 Nov 2017

Like all foxes, he has a terrible weakness for sunshine. Even a bit of brightness in November sends him sunbathing.

Fox One-Eye sleeping 5 Nov 2017

The Horse Meadow vixens include ‘Pretty Face’, another well-known fox who has given me some of my favourite photography moments – and cubs some of their favourite games. She is the perfect auntie.

Fox HMG cubs16 26 May 2017

Fox HMG cubs11 26 May 2017

Unlike One-Eye, she rarely visits the garden, although she did surprise me last week.

Fox Pretty Face 12 Nov 2017

One-Eye’s family have carved out a lofty niche for themselves. Their territory includes dozens of gardens, parts of three roads and, of course, the horse paddocks that give this group their name.

Foxes6 with magpie 180715

I often find them relaxing near the horses on sunny days, but I’ve also met them during the snow. And then they show the world how to play!

foxes snow7 210215

foxes snow12 210215

The Horse Meadows Group have a pretty easy life. Yes, intruding foxes are always a hazard, but they defend their territory with gusto – I’ve witnessed some jaw-dropping confrontations. They thrive upon years of knowledge of their land: safe footpaths and good hunting grounds, dry corners for shelter. A fox who has settled down, so to speak, is often very wise.

But there are other ways to make a living.

This is Spectacles. I’m certain he’s One-Eye’s brother. They materialised in my parish together about three years ago, distinctive from the outset in their dark russet hues across their flanks.

Fox Spectacles 160827

For a while, they were inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other.

That friendship never seemed likely to last. There is normally only one breeding male per group, and fights can be fierce. One-Eye took the Horse Meadows territory, Spectacles strayed. He is a transient – a homeless wanderer. Many young male foxes fall into the vagabond life, travelling fast as they hunt through the landscape to find a mate and territory of their own.

Spectacles is one of the few whose progress I have been able to monitor, and he has surprised me. We imagine dispersal as a straight line, but Spectacles has indulged in something entirely different. He leaves, then re-appears in the garden, lingering by the pond like a handsome black-footed ghost – and vanishes again, typically for months at a time.

Where does he go? The next village? The next hill? Or even across the human boundary into Kent?

Fox Intruder 170122

Without putting a GPS collar on him, it’s hard to be sure. He did loiter in the Across the Road group’s territory for a while last year, but that, too, did not last. The current breeding vixen of that group is extremely hostile to intruders, and you can hear the sound effects from one of her quarrels with Spectacles here.

So, he’s currently on the road again, travelling.

Does he know what he is looking for, or is he simply the prisoner of an instinct that compels him to roam?

I wish it was possible to ask him.

Life at Mouse-Height

Every field is a jungle when you stand two inches tall.

Short tailed field vole 23 Oct 2017

Short-tailed field voles are more common than people in the UK, but far harder to spot because they spend their lives within dense grass. They are placid, peaceable, incomparably scruffy little creatures. They are also a crucial component of the UK’s ecosystems and support foxes, owls and many other wild carnivores.

When the vole is hiding, its grass-tunnels remain.

Small mammal run 111013

It’s often a question of looking for fieldsign when you’re trying to study rodents. I’ve been using ink tunnels in various projects over the last year – tubes designed to capture tiny footprints.

Ink tunnel tracks

These footprints belong to a mouse, probably a yellow-necked mouse. They’re a larger species than the familiar wood mouse and can be distinguished by a yellow band on their throat.

They are also obsessively fond of birdfood!

YN mouse 150406

But sometimes – just sometimes – the ink tunnels strike gold.

Tracks from Tunnel5 220916

Three upside-down triangles equals a hazel dormouse!

Dormouse photo2

I’ve recorded dormice in three sites within my parish and consider us extremely fortunate to still have them. There’s no doubt that their UK population is in real trouble, mostly due to habitat loss. They are one of our most tree-dependent mammals, as well as the sleepiest; they can easily spend six months snoozing.

This is a dormouse nest. Unlike the chaotic nest of a yellow-necked mouse, dormice will weave honeysuckle bark into a very tight ball with a cozy chamber at the centre.

DSCN1728

They hibernate at ground level, however. The temperatures have dropped steeply in the last few days and I expect most of my local dormice are now dozing. I hope they have a peaceful winter.

Semenggoh: Royalty of the Forest

March 2017

The trees are hardly big enough to hold them.

Orang utan5 26 Mar 2017

Orangutans, people-of-the-forest.

Borneo hosts one of the world’s orang species; the other is restricted to Sumatra. These incomparably impressive and sobering creatures travel through the canopy on an armspan of up to seven feet. They are in fact the largest tree-dwelling animal.

Semenggoh is a sanctuary for orangs which have come to harm through the erosion of Borneo’s wilderness by humanity. Some have been rescued from the pet trade, and others from the palm oil plantations that are blighting so much of south-east Asia.

They are not tame. They live wild in 700 hectares of their native forest, and if they do not wish to be seen, you will not find them. Food is provided on large platforms, but whether they come to collect it depends upon their success in foraging for fruit and vines in the trees.

A warden asks the crowd to remain quiet and respectful. He emphasises that this is the orangutans’ forest, a refreshing sentiment after what I’ve witnessed in certain other places over the years.

We don’t have to wait long.

Orang utan1 26 Mar 2017

The orangutans have started families of their own, raising young that are, for all intents and purposes, wild. The bond between mother and baby is beyond and above anything else in the mammal world – she may suckle her infant for seven years, and they are utterly inseparable.

Orang utan4 26 Mar 2017

It’s hard to look at this tiny bundle of orange fur and accept that three decades later it may look like this:

Orang utan6 26 Mar 2017

King of all wild things – at least in Borneo. This huge male orang is 35 years old and the undisputed ruler of Semenggoh. He does not visit the feeding platforms that often so we were very privileged to glimpse him. The other male orangs seemed less pleased; they kept a respectful distance.

It is unforgettable to see them in their native forest.

Orang utan3 26 Mar 2017

Long may Borneo retain enough wilderness to support them – and the bay cats and clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys that also roam the hills that sweat mist and grow durian trees.

As for me, I’ve got a flight to catch to Singapore. This was the briefest of safaris in Borneo yet it has fired my imagination…and I need to return.

Sarawak: Journey to Semenggoh

March 2017

Sunrise is as sudden as night. We have time for one final hike before the boat takes us away from Bako.

Path to the beach Bako Mar 2017

The bearded pigs watch us leave.

Bearded pig on beach1

Bearded pig1

Fishing huts and mangrove forests flash by as the boat speeds towards its jetty.

Fishermen huts Bako Mar 2017

Away from the river, the road runs southwards to Semenggoh, the first reserve I’ve ever visited where the authorities have apparently found it necessary to specifically ban gambling…perhaps there is a story behind that, but it’s unknown to me.

Do not gamble

Semenggoh has orang-utans. They are orphans or rescues, restored to a semi-wild existence by the patience and respect of Semenggoh’s wardens. They roam freely through the forests here, but often return to feeding platforms, especially in seasons when fewer wild trees are fruiting.

Needless to say, everyone gathered under a small shelter listening to one of Semenggoh’s wardens give a safety briefing is hoping to glimpse an orang-utan. But they come at times of their own choosing, and there many smaller treasures here to observe too.

Longhorn spiders dazzle in the bushes.

Longhorn spider Mar 2017

And this – hopefully the novelty value can excuse the photo quality, for the little grey-brown animal on the left is a treeshrew, the first one I’ve ever glimpsed. They have a higher brain-to-body ratio than any other mammal. It is accompanied by a cream-coloured giant squirrel.

Tree shrew and giant squirrel

It may not have much cream in its fur, but ‘giant’ does fit; it is about 80cm long, including its tail.

Giant squirrel 26 Mar 2017

They might be considered a supporting cast by some, but the shaking of the trees suggests that the stars are not far behind.