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.

9 thoughts on “Romania: Richis – the Garden’s Keepers

    1. Yes, and I also felt that it’s a safer way of life than one that depends on electricity and the internet and imported avocados so much. Oil prices and global disasters are far less likely to derail Transylvania’s economy than the western world’s.

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    1. I wonder. We’re racing more and more into a mechanised, hyperconnected world, with unknown consequences. Let’s hope that places like Richis survive so that we can at least reflect on the change.

      I saw so much of pre-1830s England in Transylvania. The comparison with western Europe in the 21st century was a sobering reminder of just how severely modern agriculture has impacted the natural world.

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  1. When I was young, my grandmother in Croatia lived like that lady you described. She had a cow, sometimes chicken and pigs, as well as most of her neighbours. Grass was cut in the fields and then collected with carts pulled by oxen. Later, when she couldn’t afford to take care of cow, we would usually go to buy a milk from her first neighbour. But last 20 years changed everything, young people are leaving rural areas and move to cities. Old way of life is almost over in some areas…

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    1. That’s interesting. I can imagine that her farm was very similar to those in Transylvania.

      Indeed, and I saw that change in Dalmatia. The village were I worked this summer was practically deserted, almost all its young people having moved to the coast for employment in hotels. There were many houses that were literally falling apart.

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