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34 countries from all over the world ran a 20-page National Geographic cover story in July 2013 about a wonderful mysterious land where man and nature, working in symbiosis for hundreds of years, have created ‘one of the great treasures of the cultivated world: some of the richest and most botanically diverse hay meadows in Europe.’ This unique ecosystem, unfortunately extremely fragile, is right here in Transylvania. Rodics Gergely, director of the Pogány-havas Regional Association, is leading a team fighting to save the Transylvanian hay.

by catalin gruia

Rodics Gergely, director of the Pogány-havas Regional Association, is leading a team fighting to save the Transylvanian hay. PHOTO BY KORÖSSY RUKI

Hi Gergely, please give us a short introduction about yourself.

I was born in Budapest, Hungary in a family with quite a few connections to nature and nature conservation. My father – a doctor – is a nature lover, and he taught me a lot about nature during our walks, including most plant and animal names of my hometown. My aunt is a biologist and worked for the Ministry of Environment in Hungary for almost 20 years. It was also my favourite joy to spend as much time in nature as possible: walking, canoeing, and biking. I have a group of twelvefriends, the Börzsöny Group, named after the mountain where we had our first outing together when I was 13.

I studied rural development and landscape management on the biggest agricultural university in Hungary, and worked later in these domains, along with renewable energy policy and power plant development projects.

I love old trees enormously and every time I see local people as well as authorities in our area cutting down trees older than 40-50 years almost automatically, I get extremely upset. My big dream is to manage a large and beautiful garden or park of an existing or ruined manor house somewhere. I think – like hay meadows – these places express really how humans and nature can create the greatest harmony on Earth, these places are for me almost like the Garden of Eden.

How did you start protecting meadows?

I moved to Transylvania in 2006, when I decided to become director of the Pogány-havas Regional Association. I had various reasons, but two of them stood out: the enormous beauty of this area which made me admire the work of these people, and the second, were the people and hospitality I experienced every time I came for a visit to Transylvania.

During my first years here, I started putting together development strategies that respect the area’s natural and cultural heritage. I thought it was very important not to come here and tell people what to do, because all the visible results of their work are just so much better than those of large scale farming in the rest of Europe.

So I started softly, but at the same time we had to be aware of Romania’s 2007 EU accession, which would change a lot of rules on food production and hygiene which I already experienced in Hungary. So the main idea was to help local farmers to get ready for the new rules.

In our case this has a very clear link with hay meadow management: if hay is needed, hay meadows will be managed. To increase the need for hay we have to increase cattle numbers, to reach this we have to sell their products for a better price. So we started setting up milk collection points with the farmers’ associations, where milk quality could be tested for each farmer, and organized cheese trainings to improve the varieties sold in markets or shops.

In the middle of this process I met a new friend, Demeter László, a biologist from the area, who introduced me to Barbara Knowles, an English biologist who fell in love with Transylvania just like me. She started supporting our work financially, and later she moved to Transylvania and became a colleague, who works with us on a daily basis. Thanks to this, our network of English people and organisations interested in nature and sustainability (small farmers of Romania proved the sustainability of their work by doing it in the last couple of centuries almost the same way) increased a lot.

Together with her and László we started our biological research in the meadows which soon proved to be Europe’s most biodiverse plant communities; furthermore, Transylvania has one of Europe’s last large scale medieval landscapes.

Prince Charles is very interested in this area and he refers to it as ‘a library of information which we need for our future survival’. Could you please explain this and why are the Transylvanian meadows and their people so special?

Prince Charles fell in love with Transylvania decades ago. ‘Hay meadows provide a huge range of benefits for farming communities and society in general. They create some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery and cultural landscapes. Simply to watch this natural, environmental and cultural heritage disappear before our eyes is, surely, not an option we can consider’, said HRH the Prince of Wales in a video message during our policy seminar at the European Parliament, held in Brussels in 2012

And indeed, traditional farming here has proved for centuries that it is a sustainable system, where inputs and outputs are in harmony with the rules of nature, and that a lower standard of living doesn’t necessarily mean a lower quality of life. Hay meadows are a collection of the plant and insect species of a greater area. They were created by providing optimal living conditions for most plants, mainly by removing the competing taller plants. These places are a concentration of many species. Mountain hay meadows are among the most biodiverse areas in the world. Based on more than twelveyears of biological research we discovered:

  • Altogether 617 plant species in the area
  • 390 species of grasslands
  • 81 species in a four by four m quadrat (3rd place in Europe)
  • 38 internationally or nationally protected plant species
  • 33 red listed plant species
  • 12 endemic plant species

Plant habitats create habitats for insects and other animal species. Another interesting example is that the number of butterfly species on one meadow here equals the total butterfly population in the UK, according to research done in 2011. This richness disappeared in western Europe because of intensive, industrial monocultures.

For example, the United Kingdom lost 97% of its species-rich hay meadows since the 1950’s. If these countries would ever like to restore their natural habitats, most of their species have to be imported from somewhere else. ‘The protection of this native diversity is vital for long-term conservation of the grassland, and has practical applications in plant breeding, species recovery programmes, restocking and enhancement of species and vegetation. The scientific and economic value of ecological and geographical variation in the Transylvanian meadow flora provides a powerful argument for conservation.’ – wrote Dr John Akeroyd, a botanist friend of His Royal Highness in his talk abstract for our conference in May 2013.

What threats are they facing?

First of all we have to distinguish between inner and outer meadows. The inner meadows closer to the village are more intensively managed: they are manured, and mown twice a year. Outer – or mountain – hay meadows are far from the village (sometimes 10-20 km away), at higher altitudes and are more extensively managed (not manured, mown only once a year) – these are the very biodiverse ones.

The two main trends which make mountain hay meadows disappear on a frightening scale are abandonment and their conversion to pastures. In both cases, species’ richness decreases. The reasons are:

  • The drop of milk prices during the last decade, which resulted in lower cattle numbers in the area.
  • Increased milk hygiene standards, which made many farmers drop their production and sell their cattle.
  • Imported milk replaced national consumption of local milk.
  • Imported potatoes led to a drop in national prices; therefore local farmers gave up growing potatoes. This created free ploughland near the villages which farmers would frequently turn into intensively-used meadows with few plant species. This decreases the need for mountain hay.

Mountain meadows are far; production takes more time and is more expensive. Farmers can hardly use tractors and they have to transport hay on a long and risky road.

Farmers’children don’t continue farming because of low income levels.

European subsidies are equally high for pastures and meadows. Because making hay is a hard job, transport is pricey, most meadow owners agree to let sheep graze on them and get the same subsidy at the end of the year.

What should be done to save them?

In our opinion the main ways of saving them are:

  • More cows in the area. This would increase the need for hay. However this isn’t enough, as intensive inner meadows can satisfy most or all of the needs.
  • New management organs. Meadow management organisations could replace traditional farmers in making, transporting and marketing the mountain hay where the land was abandoned, and could help active farmers with some of these activities.
    Practically, these could be the villages’ common land management organisations. Without subsidies, this work cannot be viable.
  • New markets for hay. If hay is not needed for local cattle, it could be sold for other purposes. There is a wide range of opportunities, but these have to be thoroughly investigated. To mention just a few: Quality hay as fodder for high value animals like race horses; hay seeds for overseeding or fodder; producing hay pellets for heating; packaging material for fragile products; tee, hay sculptures and playgrounds and many others.
  • Diversified subsidies. As described above, European subsidies provide the same payment for meadows and pastures. Higher subsidy levels for hay meadow management might make a big difference and motivate farmers to continue making mountain hay.
  • Nature conservation. In general, we can say that mountain hay meadows should become nature conservation areas at national as well as at European level. Natura 2000 might help to create a top up payment for them.
  • Awareness raising and pride. People – farmers as well as city dwellers – should be aware of the outstanding value of these meadows, and they should also be proud of them. If society recognises the importance of their survival, it will be easier to convince farmers to use them, and to convince policy makers to provide higher subsidies and other support.
  • Retuning to a traditional way of life: more and more young, educated people as well as farmers’ children start understanding the importance of traditional farming and return to a life involving more physical work and closer to nature. I have to say, this is really just about habits and giving up some of the usual comfort. And at the same time it offers many healthy and uplifting experiences, much better than sitting every morning in a car, jammed in traffic.

What touristic potential does the Transylvanian hay have?

Many biologists and a few sociologists came here and were deeply interested and also very impressed by what they experienced. For biologists the main experience is to see that this type of biodiversity is not just a dream, that this can be created and managed on the long term.

We were visited by farmers and managers of protected areas, as well as nature conservation NGOs, who learned about the work we do and the work our farmers do.

There is also a less clearly identifiable group of people, seeking new ideas, new impressions about society, nature and sustainability. For them it is sometimes a life changing experience. The things which they learned at university or read in thick, highly appreciated books, here are everyday reality and simply the lifestyle of our farmers.

And Transylvanian hay already ‘boosted’ tourism in some parts of the UK, because after participating at our hay festival, some enthusiastic farmers started reintroducing hand mowing on their own farm, and launched their own hay festivals back home.

Lastly, some NGO leaders and university teachers registered for our Hay meadow conference in May 2013 from the Sub Saharan, West Africa area. They were interested in hay meadow management practices and traditional ecological knowledge in our area to reintroduce and teach sustainable and efficient small scale farming techniques in the Fouta Djallo mountain region to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition in their countries.

How many tourists are in your regional association? Where are they from? How much time do they usually stay? How much do they spend? What activities do they enjoy?

We are basically not a tourism organisation, however we do provide guidance and organise daily and weekly programmes for tourists. The conferences we organised so far had between 50 and130 participants, and we hold an annual event. Our field activities (butterfly or plant research, hay meadow clearing and hay making) gathered between five and 30 participants, and we had about three to six events a year. Participants come from the neighboring area, from other parts of Romania, as well as from abroad.

The largest group of people who came from the eastern part of Romania to learn about Pogány-havas Association’s projects counted 50 people; however they only spent a day with us. We also attract one or two groups of interested Hungarians every year. I would say the number of tourists rises to about 100 to 300 on a yearly basis.

An average tourist spends daily around 30 $ for accommodation, 20 $ for traveling, 30-60 $ for a guide and probably 30-100 $ for gifts to take home. There are very few opportunities for spending more money on events or places to visit, since the things to see are everywhere around. We provide lifts from and to airports where we try to involve local companies and also travelling by horse and cart or a horse drawn sleigh in the winter. In general our tourists enjoy learning about the landscape and the culture that created it and still preserves it. Therefore meeting locals and having a guide is essential. Still, our most successful event is the hay making festival.

Please tell us the story of the Hay Festival.

The idea of the hay making festival is based on protecting hay meadows from abandonment, to demonstrate to local people that meadows are interesting and valuable for tourists from distant countries and to teach participants the local traditional knowledge of hay making. The venue is the small B&B run by our friend in Ghimes Faget, hosted in his grandfather’s traditional house and barn, located in a beautiful mountain landscape. Timing follows the local pattern of mountain hay making. It is in the second half of August and we get up early. For one week, participants can learn and take part in making hay, from mowing to drying, collecting and building hay stacks.

There are sometime unexpected extras, like two years ago when one of the neighbors needed help to rescue his nicely dried hay from a thunderstorm; the people involved in the festival did the work quickly, and later in the evening the neighbor appeared with a box of beer; they shared the nice experience and the owner’s thankfulness throughout a cheerful evening. Aside from making hay, there are days when we show them how to make traditional cheese, we go to the forest to pick mushrooms and there is also a day when we sit on the bus and learn about the history, the architecture of the area and more about Pogány-havas projects.

The participants come from countries like Norway, UK, Germany, Austria or Hungary. The shared language is therefore English during the day, traditional dance and music in the evening. The programme is doable for all genders and ages, we had participants ranging from a eight year old girl to a 70 year old gentleman.

Some of the participants really experienced this week as kind of enlightenment; this quote speaks about it: ‘I came to the Festival to find out about and experience traditional haymaking, see the countryside and landscapes and some of its wildlife in a beautiful part of the world I had never been to before, meet some local people and experience a bit of their lifestyle – all of which I did, so it fully reached all those expectations. But the one thing I didn’t expect (and the thing I think I will remember the longest) were the truly inspiring people we met.