Comment: The real Transylvania, it is nearly but not yet lost

I first traveled to Transylvania in 2000. I was there to look for solutions; to find ways of regenerating the agricultural economy of the Saxon villages; villages left bereft of their original populations and apparently in terminal decline. I soon realized however that the future of the villages and their agrarian economies was thoroughly entwined with the preservation of one of Europe’s treasures; their beautiful landscapes and the incredible biodiversity therein. At the time a well-known Saxon lady said to me, “Stuart, please do not let them turn us into a museum”. How right she was and they are words that have remained with me since. They say it all; real preservation cannot be entrapped within the static environs of a museum.

Ultimately it is only via regenerating vibrant, agrarian communities that the landscapes can be preserved. Sadly there are too few Saxons from which to rebuild; but we can find inspiration from them for the future management of their lands. They have also left a built heritage that further enhances the region’s economic prospects, but tourism will only really take off when visitors can entertain themselves without coming face-to-face with examples of some of Europe’s most dire poverty.

Too often I read that the Saxon villages are untouched by time; Utopian idols where people lead a sustainable lifestyle that is rooted in the distant past. A place where villagers still tend their fields as their ancestors had always done. A continuation of a unique-to-Europe, medieval way of life within an equally medieval landscape. Sadly, this is as close to reality as is the legend that the Saxons emerged from a cave in Transylvania; the lesser known finale to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The reality is that the rural Saxons have been lost to Transylvania; their decline as dramatic as any population has seen in Europe in recent decades. Just a very few Saxons are now to be found in their villages.

We recently lost one of the Saxon Centenarians, an inspiring gentleman who saw Stalingrad and life in the Soviet camps. He eventually walked home to Transylvania. He and a few others of his ilk imparted a little understanding to myself of the Saxon villages in their hay-day before the events that were to tear the Saxons from their lands. Before 1939. I had recognized from the architecture, the climate and the soils that the region was wonderfully prosperous but visit the Saxon cemetery in Sighisoara for confirmation; read the ages of many from the 19th Century; longevity was nothing new and it was for a reason.

The life of the aforementioned was very, very different from his forebears; he knew first-hand the last of the halcyon days and then he saw the impact of the war years. And just ask yourself why the Saxon war memorials do not finish in 1945 but in the early Fifties, for them it was a very long war. He watched the communist era ‘collectivization’ of the land, the exodus of the Saxons to Germany, 1989, and the pathetic ‘transition’ thereafter. He saw change after tragic change

I often describe the the region not as Utopian but as being in a state of post-communist dereliction. It is so totally the opposite of what is often portrayed. But there remains a Saxon legacy, there is the architecture, albeit crumbling fast, and an incredible natural biodiversity that has come from a history of less-intensive (in the modern sense of the word) agriculture. And both are in very urgent need of saving.

Just how do we conserve the unique-to-Europe biodiversity that has survived the region’s tumultuous social changes? It is by first recognizing the unbreakable link between human society and the biodiversity; the biodiversity was created by farming practices and its survival requires their continuance. It is also not simply about managing the grasslands, as some of the hottest biodiversity spots may be found in the strip-farmed arable lands that alternate between the plow and the scythe. It was the diversity of the husbandry within the mosaic of arable strips and hay meadow parcels that created the amazing diversity of plant life.

Perversely one of the threats to the future of the biodiversity lies in the creation of simplistic, broad-brush, regimented, biodiversity-preserving land management schemes. Simply, they are self-defeating in that they incentivize the removal of the diversity of husbandry that created and maintains the biodiversity itself.

The critical point is to acknowledge that the landscapes are farmed; that they are a creation of both human activity and Nature and that their survival can only be assured by the presence of sustainable, local communities. Without them landscape and biodiversity preservation is not possible. It is the rebuilding of these communities that is the greatest challenge. It is about creating vibrant communities that are attractive to live in for the current and future generations. It is certainly not about creating a museum. And the creation of these communities is amongst the greatest challenges to be found in rural Europe today.

I am writing this after reading an article in the National Geographic. The author is a man who clearly understands more than a little about farming. He has well portrayed the beauty of Transylvania. He was not visiting a Saxon locality but an area that is ethnically Hungarian. There are other equally beautiful places that are predominately Romanian. All share a common legacy of mosaic land management. The article is about one of those localities, albeit ethnic Romanian or Hungarian, where, unlike the Saxon villages, there is a continuance of population and community. As a consequence, preservation should be a little easier.

What I appreciate is that Adam Nicholson identifies the real threat to the amazing biodiversity. The threat comes from the decline in the human population and a corresponding decline in their capability to tend their fields and meadows. To quote, “the richness is there only because a meadow stays a meadow if it is mown every summer”. He has linked the husbandry of the grasslands and the production of hay to the need to consolidate, quality-control and sell the milk. In a nutshell, “only hay makes keeping cows a possibility, and only milk from cows makes human life viable here. People in Transylvania live on the nutrient transfer from meadow to plate”. It is an ancient idea but therein still lies the methodology for the preservation of Europe’s most important meadows.

The challenge is to achieve long-term, sustainable preservation of the fields, the meadows and the pastures and, hence, their biodiversity. To do so means enhancing the lands economic productivity. But please note, this is not about landscape preservation via external and eternal subsidisation, the land areas are too vast and the support mechanisms to vulnerable to change. It is first about enhancing the value of the produce. It is also about removing some of the drudgery of the life so as to attract the younger generations to stay or return. It is about attracting newcomers into the communities. It is simply and ultimately about recognizing that in these upland regions, community and meadow preservation are inexorably and totally linked.

Focusing on a single aspect of the farmer-to-consumer food chain alone is insufficient and it is a failing that appears too often in methodologies to preserve the grasslands. There is a school of thought that believes that environmental payments to support the cutting of hay meadows is sufficient. Far from it. The idea of blanket payments to cut hay meadows is probably counter-productive. At present the schemes are so simplistic that they actually remove the very diversity of husbandry that created the biodiversity. It is a point well made by Adam Nicholson when he writes about the new July 1st start-date for hay-making.

These environmental payments themselves, linked to what are minimalistic husbandry requirements, may also be under-pinning speculative land buying and the adoption of least-spend-to-qualify-for-the-payments land management by those who are able to gain, by hook-or-by-crook, control of extensive, ‘designated’ pastures and hay meadows. Perversely, naive government policy measures can be yet another threat to real landscape and biodiversity preservation. Overall, it needs a more intelligent and much broader approach.