Romania: Mesendorf – Bear Country

I was 18 years old and in a dusty little jeep when I saw my first wild bear. It was grab-a-blanket kind of cold, as Indian sal forests are on wintry mornings; but Ranthambhore – better known for its Bengal tigers – infused the mood with a tropical vibe. Golden land speckled with trees collapsed into a valley beside us, and on the further ridge a sloth bear waddled by, on some errand known only to itself.

I don’t know how many bears I’ve seen since – hundreds, maybe thousands. Black bears and grizzlies dominated my days in western Canada. They leave their tracks, they smash their trees, and they try to live amidst people who only grudgingly tolerate them.

Grizzly10 110626

This huge male grizzly was in Jasper, Alberta. We’re always looking for a symbol for Wilderness, it seems. Bears are the spirit of mountain and taiga. There is no wilderness without large carnivores, but it doesn’t follow that large carnivores only live in wilderness.

People have now taken over practically all the Earth. If we cannot work out how to conserve wolves and bears in human-dominated landscapes, we will lose them everywhere. No national park is big enough – and some places have plenty of bears without having parks at all…

9th July 2016

There is hope for Europe’s large carnivores, maybe; it depends how you weave this fragile thread of human psychology. It all began this morning – I was standing, Newton-like, under the apple tree on the edge of our orchard-camp, awaiting today’s group. We are plunging into the unknown, where no large mammal survey team has gone before.

Choosing a new transect is an exciting business in a forest where any given track might spit you into a monstrous boggy bramble patch. The Hiking Pole gets a taste of bushwhacking.

But we strike gold.

Bear track at Daia

This is the footprint of a fairly small bear, living and breathing in a working landscape. Full of people, full of bears. Of course, a track is an invitation to take a plaster cast, like we did back in Richis.

Bear cast 270616

There’s no realistic prospect of actually meeting a bear within these rolling forests. They hear us and scatter, leaving the trees as silent witnesses.

Mes woods

So, come evening, we try something else.

Time drifts on. Clouds build into a grey matrix; rain spits, and stops again. I’m joining two university students with A. on a wildlife search tonight. He arrives smartly in a little dark jeep. He’s about forty, with a shaved head and thickset features – and he knows his stuff. We have only been driving for a few minutes when I ask, almost ironically, whether the striped feline sitting in the grass is a domestic cat. It has to be.

Really.

It isn’t.

Wildcat2b

It’s a forest wildcat, one of the rarest and most elusive animals in Europe. It resembles a tabby because it’s related to the ancestor of our pet cats, but genetically is a very different kettle of fish. Scotland calls them Highland Tigers; they’re extinct in England. Untameable, almost mythological, this is the cat that hunted Europe’s forests long before people came to name them.

Romania has one of the most robust wildcat populations still surviving. They are considerably bigger than pet cats, but also be distinguished by their neck stripes, dorsal stripe and, most of all, that thick banded tail.

Wildcat banner

I’m stunned.

Onward, past a crumbling village with brightly painted houses defying rubbish-strewn streets and bricks fallen the spire of a fortified church. Thin children and tiny puppies watch – it feels like India.

A. goes offroad. It seems reasonable. You walk across meadows, you drive across meadows…except I’m not sure I would attempt these slippery grassy hills even on foot. We slide. We roar. We climb. We descend. A. describes my reaction to his driving as ‘interesting’.

We bounce through knee-high grass, yellow and purple flowers within touching distance, wheels churning as we ascend improbably high. The topography is fascinating, deep valleys slicing into the hills like the whorls of a lettuce. We are on a podium, maybe – four human figures entirely encircled by rounded wood-topped hills. The sky laces into an ever more complex tangle of white and grey, and lightning leaps behind it like a small child trying to get a view.

Terrible weather for bears. Clouds break loose and drift beneath the horizon line. Thunder and lightning batter the jeep. A. passes the time by showing us pictures of his Hungarian vizsla dogs, which he uses for truffle hunting. He says the maximum he has made is 180 euro, but the big Italian restaurants sell his truffles for over 1000 euro. He is not happy about it.

Another valley, and the rain is easing. I scan the grass with binoculars – certainly a bear-coloured mound. It lifts its head, and mounds don’t have heads, or long furry ears. My first glimpse of a European brown bear is very short but puts happy context on all the tracks of the last three weeks.

Back in camp, everyone hears about the wildcat immediately, and I’m asked if I was pleased with the drive.

Yes, because I want Europe to retain its wild carnivores. And because maybe there is still hope.

Wildcat3

Romania: Mesendorf – Bats, Maps and Wildcats

June – August 2016

A roe deer woke me last night. Its hoarse barks brought wilderness into the nocturnal chorus of village dogs. Come dawn, we strike tents and board a coach to Crit, pausing within a fortified church with eyes of gold.

Crit Church

Then, we walk, mostly downwards – my knees are glad that the land is flattening. And Mesendorf is the perfection of a Saxon village.

Mesendorf overview2

Camp this week is a pear orchid. Sitting in my tent, I hear horse-drawn carts rattling along the road, their engines neighing at tethered horses on the roadside.

Not far away are the meadows that grow fuel for them.

Flower

Flowers ME

It’s approaching mid-summer, and the hay is ripe for cutting – men with scythes tend to the task. There is a system of land ownership but it is hard to a visitor to grasp. Pointed sticks and boundary stones speak enough to local people.

Cutting the meadows

Above them, woods stand proud and leafy, vast trees shadowing puddles that pop with yellow-bellied toads – one of the few wild species with a logical name.

Yellow bellied toad

But there are far bigger creatures here.

Bear tracks are imprinted on the fallen leaves. Once again the army of trailcams are deployed – I’m happy with their footage so far but it would be exciting to catch a bear as well as the deer and martens.

Even a bear might take a second place to the maker of these footprints. A forest wildcat – striped ghost of the European wild – crossed a stream not long before.

Wildcat tracks

The sun beats hard and insects chirp. Back in the meadows, sheep are roaming…and they’re not alone.

LGD Mesendorf

A livestock guardian dog. They’ve been introduced to North America and South Africa to defuse conflicts between farmers and wild predators, and have proven very successful in keeping both sheep and wildlife alive.

But here in Romania, they cut a different figure. Many are half feral and think nothing of chasing humans as well as bears. The wooden stick dangling from their collars is to deter such adventures – it will knock into his chest if he runs too fast. Officially, the number of dogs per shepherd is restricted, but nobody enforces that law.

This herd at least passes us without incident.

Sheep flock Mesendorf

Down in Mesendorf, we consider the church turret from the perspective of roosting bats.

Mesendorf church2

Tawny owls and beech martens often enter these structures too. The church walls are as thick as a man’s arm and riddled with tiny windows that widen inwards – perfect for shooting arrows at invading Ottomans. Still such a strange thing, this blending of military and spiritual.

Conservation and agriculture is a less controversial mix. As the sun falls over Mesendorf, farmers return to their brightly painted homes, and somewhere out there, a wildcat awakes.

Romania: Nou Săsesc – Wildside

June – August 2016

After a week of sliding up and down impossibly sheer slopes, I am not surprised that so much of Nou Săsesc’s wildlife is winged. Amongst them are middle-spotted woodpeckers – I crossed paths with the bird team one morning, just as they were studying this elegant chiseller of Romania’s trees.

Middle spotted woodpecker

And red-backed shrikes – they’re everywhere, watching for prey. They are songbirds with the heart of hawks.

Red backed shrike RI

The rooftops host special guests. A family of little owls roosts on the farm next to our camp, watching our work between their snoozing.

Little owl NS

And then, of course, there are the hawkmoths.

Hawkmoth NS

Down at ground level, the trail cameras caught a beech marten carrying off a frog.

Marten with frog

Overall, mammal records are low here compared to Richis; and yet, the sense of being away from the over-developed world is still strong. An excerpt from my diary dated July 2nd:

…in the evening, I tag onto the wildlife spotting group, going for a long drive up the same road which we clattered down in the morning. It seems even further in the car. After winding through wonderful hilly scenery, passing livestock and many trees, we stop at a meadow. There are signs of bear diggings on ant hills, and for a brief moment I wonder; but the charm of the evening is the utter absence of human noise. Sitting in the long grass, the world is very alive. Moths fly and bugs buzz, and a bee is being eaten by some species of false widow spider. You could forget the human voice altogether if you spent too long in a valley like this; instead there are roe deer, barking in a hoarse retch. One steps through the new growth of dense trees on the hillside above. Another barks at close range but cannot be detected with the thermal imaging camera. One student sees a fox, and we all observe two red deer bounding away. I spy a glow worm on the way back.

But mostly it is the silence, the sense that nature continues even when humanity forgets it.

This is Romania, land of contrasts.

One night you may be taught by the silence of nature, and the next giddy with rich human culture. The week ends with Romanian dancers and musicians performing in our camp. A video is here.

Next stop: Mesendorf. The land is gentler…but it is also much richer in bears.

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.

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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.

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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