From June – August 2016, I worked as Operation Wallacea’s large mammal specialist in the wildlife-rich farmlands of Transylvania, recording bears, wildcats and other species.
I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.
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.
Harvest needs a horse.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And this, a 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.
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.
Firework is stacked for winter, not that it is easy to think of snow while being battled by the blistering June sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, hawk-moths dazzle in camp.
Leaving Richis is difficult. But six more villages await.
June – August 2016
My colleague: “And how was your day?”
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.
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.
The horses stopped at an ancient fortified church, giving us a moment to ponder deeper mysteries.
Then the journey continued on foot, high into meadows abloom with colour.
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…
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.
Up here there are bear and badger tracks; there are also dazzling longhorn beetles that would fit well in the tropics.
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.
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.
And red-backed shrikes – they’re everywhere, watching for prey. They are songbirds with the heart of hawks.
The rooftops host special guests. A family of little owls roosts on the farm next to our camp, watching our work between their snoozing.
And then, of course, there are the hawkmoths.
Down at ground level, the trail cameras caught a beech marten carrying off a 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.
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.
Then, we walk, mostly downwards – my knees are glad that the land is flattening. And Mesendorf is the perfection of a Saxon village.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The sun beats hard and insects chirp. Back in the meadows, sheep are roaming…and they’re not alone.
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.
Down in Mesendorf, we consider the church turret from the perspective of roosting bats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
This huge owl posed nicely in front of a camera while it was hunting for toads in the pond.
Another one! A big adult this time, showing off his splendid striped tail.
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.
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.
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.
And tourists or no, milk is still gathered in the traditional way.
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.
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.
Guarding them is the smallest of watchdogs, and he seems far more interested in playing with the nets used by the butterfly survey team.
As for wild mammals – one is very close at hand. Livestock and puppy are joined in this farmyard by a wild 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.
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.
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.
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.
With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.
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.
Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Where else can you mull over both haystacks and graveyards?
And where else can you wander out of the farmhouse to spot an aesculapian snake trying to nibble the herpetologist’s arm?
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…
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.
And one of the liveliest: a stone or pine marten.
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!
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.
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.
And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.
It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.
And then the monster strolls by.
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.
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.
June – August 2016
I’m not sure what Daia means in Romanian, but in my mental dictionary it is ‘authentic, beautiful, rustic, irresistible’ 🙂
It is hard to remember that all the world used to be like this. No car noise – merely the sweet chirps of sparrows, and the whinnying of horses.
The streets are old, and stray dogs play in them.
This is Transylvania at its purest. Daia is everything that a medieval village ought to be. And the transects! If there’s a more beautiful corner of agricultural Europe, I haven’t found it.
Walking in these meadows is to be lost in a fragrant dream. Crushed thyme infuses the air with every step.
But like all the best parts of the world, Daia is moody – the weather spins on a dime from suffocating hot to something entirely else:
Hear the loud alarum bells– Brazen bells!
Bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells of despair! How they clang, and clash, and roar! What a horror they outpour on the bosom of the palpitating air! Yet the ear, it fully knows, by the twanging and the clanging, how the danger ebbs and flows… (Edgar Allan Poe)
Bells cry from the church tower. Not continuously, but after each peel of thunder, and today there are many. I’m told it’s a ritual; people here believe it will drive the storm away.
The light levels are dropping although it is only 5pm, and wind is licking around the tent corners, but so far no rain. The thunder is more than weather; it sounds like the sky itself is rending like a –
Plastic sheet. I think that’s what I meant to write. In the middle of that sentence the wind slammed into my tent like a tidal wave. I was ready (in the sense of having footwear donned) so grabbed my laptop bag, slammed the laptop into it while running, and bolted for shelter. These clouds are painting grey blotches, circling overhead like aerial hunting creatures. It’s like being inside a plughole watching the torrent circle.
Lightning strikes, sheet mostly, and from all possible directions. The sky is a living thing that roars at us. Nearly the whole expedition huddle under the lecture room roof, save the botany team, who are getting a swimming lesson somewhere out on transect.
Bells, bells, bells! They’re still ringing…
The storm consumes itself, and the sky is given over to night.
June – August 2016
Daia is still in a questionable mood. Clouds roll inwards from the mountains.
High on the transects, the trail cameras keep a lonely vigil in the mist.
Weather has a low impact on large mammal surveys, unless the rain is so heavy that it obliterates the tracks. The bird team are warier than me; their standard method is to set mist nets, very fine netting that captures birds with low risk of harm. Using mist nets in rainy conditions is not recommended for many reasons, and given that they take time to set up, it is easier to have them near camp when the weather is changeable.
Which means that the rest of us can have a look too.
Red-backed shrikes are abundant.
And a great spotted woodpecker is a nice surprise.
All the birds are fitted with an identification ring and released to continue their day.
They are far from the only animals in camp. A convolvulus hawk moth searches for nectar in the drizzle.
Even when the wildlife is hiding, the farm kittens melt everyone’s hearts.
Through it all, their wild forest cousins move noiselessly in the misty hills, fending for themselves amongst the bears.
June – August 2016
The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!
Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.
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.
Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!
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.
But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.
Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.
August 8th 2016
We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?
Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.
Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.
Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.
Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.
We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.
Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.
The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!
Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!
Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, the thieves are armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!
Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.
Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. I have the photo and hold out it as a cry for help. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.
Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.
The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.
Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…
We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.
It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.
A message will be passed to our heroic friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.
And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…