Romania: Apold – Never Eat an Amanita

June – August 2016

Fortunately, nobody does. We’re welcomed into the woods above the final Transylvanian village by the most notorious species in European biodiversity: a death cap Amanita phalloides. Eat this, and you will need a liver transplant…at best.

Death cap2

Gathering medicinal plants is a common activity in Transylvania; I’ve met many elderly women doing just this while I’m out on my mammal surveys. But as with most things in life, you do need to know what you’re doing. Apart from highly poisonous fungi, these hills also host deadly nightshade.

Deadly nightshade

Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.

Bolete

So, Apold. I don’t remember much about arriving here. I had a headache for a full week in Daia and arrived in the final village desiring nothing except sleep. The novelty of the campground wakes me a bit – it is actually inside the parameter of a fortified church. The students are based in the towers, but I’m sticking to my trusted tent.

The village is modern enough to contain car noise and German tourists. There is an ‘end of season’ air to the work this week and my main ambition is not to lose any more cameras. Trailcam 4 gets special treatment of course – we leave it on a track next to some huge bear tracks.

The transects are laced with electric fencing, but I find mammal sign before even leaving town: badger fur caught on wire.

Badger fur

Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!

Bear scat4

The geography is for the adventurous spirit; the Great Thicket of Apold remains in our mind for many days. We achieve the gold standard of Apold by climbing right through it, but it’s so hot, and transect after transect is starting to blur into one.

Apold thicket

But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.

Slow worm

Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

Snapshot_9

And…

Snapshot_7

After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Malancrav – The Woods Today…

June – August 2016

Everyone who’s set up a trail camera has had a ‘what in the name of all wonders is that?!’ moment. Malancrav is up there with the best of them.

It is not that there is no wildlife; we even have a blurry clip of red deer, the largest mammal in Transylvania.

Snapshot_0

And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.

Snapshot_2

It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.

Snapshot_4

And then the monster strolls by.

Snapshot_5

In the mammal book? No. Wikipedia tells me that it is a corb, also known as a Romanian raven shepherd dog, best described as a gigantic, rambling, black St Bernard. It is indigenous to Brasov where it has been driving bears away from cattle for centuries. What it is doing roaming around Malancrav’s outback by itself is a mystery. Romania has a serious stray dog problem that is not only a hazard to people, but also to wildlife – in fact sadly we see one guard dog run down and kill a hare on the outskirts of the village.

The corb is a little strange, but Trailcam 7 wins the prize. I’ve been having arguments with this camera all season; it seems to have some kind of power leakage and is chomping through 10 AA batteries a week. It buzzes, glitters and goes flat. One of my colleagues has kindly offered to leave it in front of a moving bus. But, alas, first it is stolen…by ants.

Snapshot_6

The photograph does not do the crisis justice – there is a video clip on YouTube here.

Gingerly, very gingerly, we put Trailcam 7 into a Ziploc bag, spray it with mosquito repellent – the only weapon at hand – and carry it three miles back to camp.

Thieves, corbs and ants – who would be a trail camera?

But our next stop is the remote village of Daia, where cams keep the royal company of bears.

Romania: Malancrav – Edge of Somewhere

June – August 2016

I think we’ve just tumbled off the edge. Viscri took us close to modernity; Malancrav reminds us that the real world is rural, dusty, and cut over with scythes. The fifth Saxon village of this expedition thumps with Roma music over a background base of barking. Every night, one dog yelps, and the cry is caught by another, and another – the barks bounce around the village like a tennis ball. It’s like listening to a relay team.

Where else can you find a goat inspecting your camp?

Goat in Malancrav

Where else can you mull over both haystacks and graveyards?

Malancrav camp

And where else can you wander out of the farmhouse to spot an aesculapian snake trying to nibble the herpetologist’s arm?

Aesculapian snake

This is only a small aesculapian. Fully grown, they can reach over two metres and count amongst Europe’s largest snakes. They are not venomous.

But I’m ready to be tracking mammals after the difficulties of Viscri. As a point of order, Trailcam 4’s number is not transferred; it retired with the camera’s death, like a famous footballer’s shirt number.

We have a long, long walk through the heart of Malancrav before we even turn off towards the wood. It’s a world of small sights: the well has a huge branch balancing its bucket like a see-saw. A man with a checked shirt is driving a haycart, and pauses to tell us that a cow has been attacked by a bear. Another horse is driven past with yellowish flem dripping from its jaws; its owner shows no mercy. More trusting are tiny puppies – a little girl shows one to us, beaming.

And then there’s the terrier…

Alin and Oscar

We thought we were here to collect data, but, alas, the real reason is to walk this dog. He trots after us for hour upon hour, never doubting that we will bring him safely home.

He takes little interest in his wild neighbours. Here is a footprint from one of the largest: a wild boar.

Wild boar track

And one of the liveliest: a stone or pine marten.

Stone marten track

So we return to base – and it is there that a blonde woman walks up to us, smiling.

In her hand is the stolen camera!

Trailcam 4

She hardly stops long enough to be thanked. Eventually we establish that:

  • shortly after I set Trailcam 4 in Viscri, a poacher came across it. He panicked, thinking it was a police sting operation, and snapped it off the chain.
  • Two days afterwards, he went to a wedding in Viscri, and jovially asked another guest how trail cameras operate.
  • Unluckily for him, this other guest was our host back in Mesendorf.
  • Our local friends in Viscri joined up the dots and ran a SWAT operation to retrieve the camera.

Or something like that. Trailcam 4 is immediately put back to work.

We badly want it to catch a bear after its troubles.

Trailcam 4 RIP

Romania: Viscri – Land of Lost Trailcams

June – August 2016

The peace is superficial. From Viscri’s high ridges, you can see the land folding higher and ever higher into the Carpathians – but something is in the foreground. It has hooves.

Carpathians from Viscri

Livestock explains a lot about Viscri. Modernisation has boosted sheep, perhaps for the wool to knit those socks for tourists. Not only is the sheep / cow ratio skewed, but the actual sheep flocks are also much bigger.

Sheep flock Viscri

More hooves to trample the meadows, and more mouths to eat it. The grass is cropped low with sharply reduced biodiversity. The only exception is within a rusty barbed wire fence: a tiny but gorgeous meadow saved by the local beekeeper for his bees.

Beekeeper meadow

With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.

Sand lizard3

Something doesn’t feel right. Wild boar bones litter the wood – someone has been poaching. I’ve got a bad feeling about leaving the trail cameras here.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Viscri has a signpost to Brasov, arguably the most famous flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict in Europe.

Signpost to Brasov

Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…

Asking directions

July 15th

The cows are coming home. I can hear them mooing from my room. A less common event in town is the decorating of a gate with conifer branches and balloons. Men were playing eastern-sounding music as they worked. There will be a wedding tomorrow.

July 19th

Dogs. Sheep. East Transect.

The skies are grey with fluctuating patches of blue, painting random lighted patches on the green landscape.

Fluffy cotton wool – or rather, dirty cotton wool. Sheep are dotted on the overgrazed grass in a flock both coherent and borderless.

The track rises swiftly over what might be an esker. What is this? Heads pop up. Heads, heads, heads. Giant dogs burst forth, barking. But the numbers! There are eleven, at least, although I don’t remember counting, and each is the size of an English mastiff or bigger. They flow towards us like an army out of Narnia: white and brown, or grey, or white, with massive St Bernard heads and torn ears. Some are like Spanish mastiffs, but with longer, unkempt coats.

We have no stick. We have no pepper spray.

I don’t make eye contact with the dogs and feel nothing. Time blends into a swirl. So much barking. Occasionally I notice a passing dog with angry eyes and barking jowls – the pack has encircled us. No elk ever brought to bay by wolves was so trapped, but then, elk that stand still are those that survive.

Some while later, the shepherd ambles over. He displays no concern whatsoever. He is perhaps in his forties, with a brimless black hat, an overcoat loose over his shoulders, and a large plastic bottle of something that looks like Pepsi but is probably beer. His dogs release us. We’re out of here.

Trailcams 1, 2, 3 – we ascend the ridge, and grab them. The good news is that one caught a fleeting glimpse of a forest wildcat carrying reptilian prey. We also have a rather cute fox.

Snapshot_0

The bad news is Trailcam 4. A chain dangles sadly from where the camera used to be. It’s now in a poacher’s pocket.

With the surviving cameras and low spirits, we walk on through the wood, trying to find a route home away from the dog pack. With the utmost difficulty, we crawl through dense prickling hawthorn, only to find ourselves dangerously close to the notorious farm with the red roofed barns.

Red roof farm

New problem: cows litter the landscape. Even at four hundred metres, another pack of giant dogs spot us, and come charging, bounding into hedgerows, closer, ever closer. Baskerville would be proud. One – something like a long-haired Anatolian – closes the gap to perhaps 60 metres, barking, barking, barking…

Scratched, exhausted and overheated, we stumble back into camp. Our local friends are horrified to hear that Trailcam 4 has been taken and with an energy that would leave the CID in the dust, they vow to track down the culprit. But there’s nothing more I can do.

Roll on Malancrav. That will be all. :/

Romania: Viscri – Changing Paces

June – August 2016

Something is different; the price to enter the latest fortified church, for starters. Viscri is still very ‘out there’ for a British traveller, but there is a change of tone after three weeks in the remote lanes of Richis and Mesendorf. Viscri has tourists, German mostly, come to celebrate the land of their ancestors, or buy traditional Viscri socks, or pull up on the roadside and ask me directions to Prince Charles’ house.

Yes, he keeps a property here. Somewhere. I am never quite sure which one it is, but the church itself is grand and timeless.

Viscri church

Tourism has not ruined Viscri by any standards, but it has some subtle impact. My routine post-survey survival kit of chocolate and melon-favoured icecream is more expensive here. More seriously, the local farms are sliding towards modernisation, which is already showing signs of throttling Viscri’s biodiversity. I’m expecting to find far less on the transects than in the first three villages.

First, though, I need to explore the village itself. Here puppies greet horses.

The Watching Puppy

And tourists or no, milk is still gathered in the traditional way.

Milk run

Every evening the cows bring themselves home, right home, each turning into her own gate. Swallows swoop over the water provided for livestock right in the centre of town.

Viscri drinking trough

Home for the week is a room, not a tent. I’m staying in one of the many guesthouses, a short walk from the heart of all things: Gerda’s lovely farm. A small army of ducks, geese and guinea fowl wander noisily out of her gate every morning, and back again every night.

Morning at Gerda's

Guarding them is the smallest of watchdogs, and he seems far more interested in playing with the nets used by the butterfly survey team.

Blackie and the butterfly nets

As for wild mammals – one is very close at hand. Livestock and puppy are joined in this farmyard by a wild hedgehog!

Hedgehog

It is a very peaceful hoggie, but causes a taxonomic debate. Officially, there are only eastern hedgehogs Erinaceus concolor here, but this individual, and all others that we’ve glimpsed, are clearly the western species Erinaceus europaeus. The mammal information book has erred.

It remains to be seen what surprises Viscri’s transects will bring.

Romania: Mesendorf – Trailcam Feast

July – August 2016

At the risk of understatement, seeing a bear and a wildcat on the same evening was a treat. But Mesendorf’s wildlife had another star turn, this time courtesy of the trail camera army. Here are just a few of the highlights from those beautiful old woods:

Ural owl

This huge owl posed nicely in front of a camera while it was hunting for toads in the pond.

Ural owl

Roe deer

Roe deer2

Roe deer1

Badger

Badger1

Forest wildcat

Another one! A big adult this time, showing off his splendid striped tail.

Wildcat

I should say that I set the cameras to film in movie mode; these are screenshots from the clips because I don’t have the right WordPress package for uploading the videos.

The cameras also caught a red squirrel and a red fox – and a bear, albeit so close to the camera that there’s little point in posting the image.

Next stop: Viscri, the village of royalty…and half-feral guard dogs.

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.