Mountain hay meadows - hot spots of biodiversity and traditional culture

 

Conference at the Boros Guesthouse, Gyimesközéplok, Romania

 

 

 

The sun shone, the meadows bloomed, and the 96 delegates enjoyed the rustic setting of a restored barn and village houses for discussions on the culture, traditional management, science and conservation of mountain hay meadows, and opportunities for tourism, food and education.

 

Invited speakers presented results, opinions and recommendations in their diverse fields of expertise. For other participants there was an opportunity to present research results as posters as well as participating in the workshops and field trips. The conference included a VIP reception, two mornings of talks, six workshops and four field trips to the study areas of the project.

 

We received and published messages of support from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and from Sir John Lawton, distinguished ecologist and chair of the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

 

We were delighted to bring together delegates from such a varied but complementary range of backgrounds: farmers, biologists, sociologists, economists, policy makers, mayors, teachers, guesthouse owners and NGOs. Lively discussions during breaks, meals and field trips created new friends and connections, and revealed a common purpose amongst these groups for the conservation, sustainable management and social value of mountain hay meadows.

 

The meadows of Transylvania are some of the most species-rich grasslands of Europe. Amongst them, the hay meadows found in the hills and mountains of Eastern Transylvania are outstanding in terms of biodiversity, landscape beauty and the living rural communities that created and manage them. Our project aims to help and record the sustainable use of hay meadows and thus to maintain high biodiversity, important ecosystem services and healthy local communities in two adjacent but very distinct landscapes of the Eastern Carpathians.

 

The mayors, farmers and business owners from the region were surprised to find that their meadows attracted such interest and appreciation from the international delegates. One of the benefits of such an event is to raise local awareness and pride in the natural and cultural treasures that have been nurtured and sustained by traditional extensive agriculture over many generations, and which are now under threat from the pressures of the modern world. Local awareness of the international importance and exceptional biodiversity of these meadows may help them to survive and thrive. It was therefore gratifying that the school teachers at the conference expressed a wish for more information that will help them to teach their pupils about the value of this heritage.

 

Newspaper, radio, TV and web coverage before and during the event raised awareness among a much wider audience, especially in Romania and Hungary. The conference was also listed as an official event of the International Year of Biodiversity.

 

Two local translators did a magnificent job of simultaneous translation in the face of much specialist vocabulary, so that we were able to offer Hungarian and English presentations to complement the bilingual conference booklet.

 

Fascinating field trips to two meadow sites - which are the subject of our current research – introduced delegates to the landscape, flora and fauna of this part of the Eastern Carpathians of Romania. László Demeter and Anna-Mária Csergő showed us a typical wet meadow area of the Csík (Ciuc) Basin. The site is important especially for amphibians and birds of prey. It hosts one of the largest moor frog populations of Romania. The site is special for its solitary Medieval church too, with a magnificent painted altar. Delegates enjoyed the sight of a Marsh Harrier pair nesting in a small patch of reed and some national rarities like Bladderwort, Bogbean and Tufted Loosestrife, the latter two being on the Southern edge of their global distribution. Zsolt Molnár introduced us to the species-rich hay meadows of Gyimes (Ghimes), making a live demonstration of the huge local knowledge about plants with the help of 65-year-old “uncle” Károly. On the second day Béla – whose grandfather returned to Gyimes because of his children born from a local woman during his nearby military service in the first world war – gave us more evidence of the local knowledge on biodiversity. He and Zsolt contrasted the academic and traditional knowledge of plant species and their indicator or healing roles in an amazing and funny duet.

 

Some other memorable moments from the conference were Patrick McGurn, in the hot sunshine, explaining a hay drying technique used in the wet Irish climate, Owen Mountford exploring local flora, listing examples from Kazakhstan, Rainer Waldhardt warning us of quick unwanted change in land ownership, Jeremy Staniforth exhorting us for yet more data, and Razvan Popa’s force analysis, to list just a few.

 

Several of the workshops were memorable for their picturesque outdoor settings, which stimulated much imaginative thinking. The conference forms a central part of a project part-funded by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme. The workshop reports will directly inform the development of meadow management plans required by this project, and recommendations for education, ecotourism, policies and rural development strategies for the region.

 

Local producers offered the delegates a chance to see and buy local produce, including textiles, painted wooden gifts, pottery, food, drinks and herbal products: the Györgyice family, Bíró Gyöngyvér, Dánél József and Wil van Eijsden.

 

Tasty meals of local produce, eaten outside at long tables, and an evening of traditional dance and music, helped to cement the convivial atmosphere of the event. We parted reluctantly, glad to have made new friends and hoping to welcome them again to this beautiful region.

 

Organisers: the Pogány-havas (Pagan Snow Cap) Association, Barbara Knowles and Demeter László.
Sponsors: the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, the Szülőföld (Homeland) Fund, the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism /European Commission (DG Environment), Harghita County Council and the Barbara Knowles Fund.
Professional partners: Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Fundatia ADEPT, Harghita Environmental Protection Agency.

 

by Barbara Knowles