Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘EuCAN’

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In May 2017 I visited the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Flevoland, north-east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The trip was organised by EuCAN in their drive to keep the conservation channels open in a post-Brexit landscape and my thanks go to Nigel and Kathy for their work in making it all happen, as well as my fellow travellers. The Oostvaardersplassen is renowned in conservation in the United Kingdom as one of the foremost ‘rewilding’ projects. I won’t attempt to completely deconstruct the project, its successes and failures, its history and ambitions, here. I didn’t gather enough information whilst there to attempt that. Instead I’ll offer a few observations and ideas regarding what we saw.

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The Oostvaardersplassen’s landscape

Oostvaardersplassen is a 22 kilometre-squared area of woodland, marshland and wetland reclaimed from the sea. Where the ‘free-roaming’ herbivores reside is completely fenced on all sides, though attempts have been made to create a wildlife corridor connecting them with other areas of the country. The site has been stocked with grazing animals – cattle, konik horses and several species of wild deer have entered in. The grazing regimes brought about by the inclusion of these animals are an attempt to recreate the prehistoric mosaic of open habitats that were once the ‘natural’ state of the European landscape. For some there is an argument that the landscape was coast to coast woodland, dark and overgrown, with few clearings. Another view, propounded by Franz Vera, a key figure in the Oostvaardersplassen, is that in fact the landscape was more open and that large herbivores (European bison, wild ox or aurochs, deer, elk and indeed geese) held back the woodland through their chomping, meaning a mixture of more open and wooded habitats. I am more convinced by the latter, especially after seeing the impact of the grazing here.

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The majority of the landscape is wetland, of open water and reedbeds. It is rich in birdlife and its geese populations are of European importance. This means that very little of the reserve is easily accessible but there is an excellent visitor centre and some footpaths and hides available for tourists. The most striking sense was of the large scale dieback of trees. As far as the eye could see willow trees were dead and dying. Speaking to one of the rangers for a short time, there is a great pressure from visitors whose views are based on aesthetics. The view from the neighbouring trainline has been voted the most beautiful in the Netherlands. Our guide spoke of how visitors perceived the landscape in terms of suffering, be it because animals that died were left to decay and that trees were not lollipops with a full compliment of leaves. This is not something confined to the Netherlands but it was clear these views stung the land managers and interventions had been made to ensure that animals, especially cattle and horses, were not allowed to suffer in ways that appeared negligent.

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The animals were the reason for the sea of deadwood that was immediately evident. The konik horses and deer had ring-barked the trees, meaning that the passage of food and water to the tops of the trees was impossible and the trees died. I found some real comfort in seeing this landscape of untidiness and it challenged my sense of ‘what a landscape should look like’. We are so used to formalised landscapes in the places that we live, be it the urban environment or the agricultural rural landscape. Why does a landscape have to look any way at all? It is an utterly middle-class concept. The ranger reminded us that there was no ideal vision for how Oostvaardersplassen would look. It was a matter of seeing how rich the landscape would become by returning it to one of free roaming grazing animals with limited human intervention.

In terms of flora, there was almost nothing bar a few dandelions due to the intensity of the grazing. Birds seemed to fare better, with male redstarts singing from song perches provided by the dead branches. The lack of leaves also gave an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph them.

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Redstarts are African migrants, preferring this kind of wood pasture habitat that grazing animals can create. The New Forest, though it has far more in the way of living trees, is another similar habitat type where redstarts still can be found breeding in Britain.

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To our delight, another species which enjoyed the prevalence of dead wood song perches was the bluethroat. At first hunkering down low in the reeds, the bird here nipped into a tree and belted out its medley of tunes and trills.

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In continental Europe the pied wagtail is replaced by a subspecies, the white wagtail. It has a greyer appearance. This bird was gathering insects to feed its young in the nest.

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There was an area of woodland accessible to visitors and free of grazing pressure. This was richer in plants, though limited mainly to nettles and other nitrogen-favouring species. In this area pied flycatcher was nesting and the insect life came to the fore.

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At the roadside a crowd had gathered to watch this eagle owl roosting in willow. It is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of 2 metres and a diet of buzzard and raven. It’s not a bird to meet in a side alley on the way home from the pub. There were reports of an eagle owl in Lelystad, the closest town, the previous day and there were rumours it could have escaped from a collection.

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There was a pleasing diversity of bee-life, with several species of Nomada bee potted and identified. This nomad bee had stopped to preen its antennae.

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A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle. Outrageous.

The map butterfly is always a pleasant sight because it’s not found in the UK. It has two broods with separate markings, the latter being darker, seen in the Czech Republic in July.

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The most common insect to be found was probably this Empid or dance fly. It spent most of its time drinking from hawthorns or else hunting crane flies. It would attack the crane flies and fly away with them, legs akimbo.

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What is rewilding?

Rewilding is a conservation movement which seeks to return large areas of land to natural processes where human intervention is limited, sometimes to almost nothing. There are strong arguments for moving away from tree planting, for example, in areas where (as Oliver Rackham said) the simple lack of grazing animals will allow woodland to flourish on its own. In Britain there are arguments to allow ‘the uplands’ to be returned to a more ‘natural state’ (sorry about the inverted commas, but the terms used are often subjective) to prevent flooding by ending intensive moorland management and allowing trees to recolonise and therefore store more rainwater to reduce flooding in the land below, where most towns and cities are located.

Other ideas are to introduce wolves or lynx to areas where wild deer numbers are out of control and their grazing pressure is severely damaging woodlands. Something closer to reality is the return of the beaver to the English landscape and the positives they certainly can bring in reducing flooding and diversifying riverine habitats and boosting other species. One interesting idea is the return of pine marten to reduce the number of invasive grey squirrels, and the return of the otter resulting in a reduction in American mink through competition. There are many ideas, some hugely exciting. They are experiments which, due to the utterly changed nature of the British landscape, will remain a mystery in many cases.

Personally I see big problems with the concept as it has been conceived and amplified in recent terms, largely related to my experience as a land manager, not merely an ecological theorist or environmental campaigner. But then rewilding is also thought to be achievable in an urban setting, something that is otherwise alien to the concept.

Rewilding has experienced a massive spike in interest since the publication of Feral by George Monbiot but it was not first thought of then. Sometimes it is hard to be convinced it is a concept at all, such is its similarity to other conservation projects which are currently in action, as with the beaver reintroduction in Devon. Rewilding could be a response to the apparent bureaucratisation of the conservation movement. People don’t want their donations to conservation charities to be spent on printing and electricity bills (sorry but it actually has to sometimes). Rewilding has become a populist movement, largely thanks to Monbiot’s ability to inspire people in ways that previous proponents have failed to.

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Monbiot is a popular environmental writer who seeks to tie in his economic and social writings with those of environmentalism, connecting the impacts of Western consumer lifestyles with the shocking loss of species in the past fifty or more years. He is one of the only writers to be given column inches and use the phrase ‘British wildlife’ in a grown-up way, rather than simply recounting childhood memories. On the opposite end of the scale to Monbiot, there are xenophobic reimaginings of rewilding, highlighted in a twitter page called Rewild Britain, which uses the notion of species decline to lambast ethnic minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not ‘indigenous’ to Britain. Many people today have not understood that there are no ‘pure’ or ‘indigenous’ Brits. Our farming systems evolved in the Middle East, our language a melange of foreign ones, and Britain has been enjoying immigration ever since it became an island. Suffice to say the social media account in question has no accountability, no name, no website, and is easily confused with the official account of Rewilding Britain.

Is rewilding open to misanthropy? I have spoken to proponents of what they deem to be rewilding who have stated that they think, in essence, that humans are bad and that we should not be a part of nature as they conceive of it anymore. We are a part of nature, our place is still in the natural world, it is simply that our place in the food chain, in the temporal sense, has been warped by technological advances: it takes longer for our species to be impacted by environmental change. Climate change is impacting upon species with a low trophic-level (butterflies, bees, birds) right now and it will meet us in the same way later on, in terms, because of our protective measures buying us time whilst our damaging measures draw difficulties closer.

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Doing it the Dutch way

Back to the Netherlands. On our merry way around the five-lane motorways of the north-west Netherlands, we stopped in at the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland to visit an area where European bison were acclimatising. Bison are thought to have been present across the entire Northern Hemisphere before humans began to impact on their populations. Though there is debate about whether they were in Britain, they are now being introduced across Europe thanks to successes in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park. The bison in this part of Holland were living in an area of ancient sand dunes close to the sea but, as the photo above illustrates, close to human habitation. The place was a riot of nightingales. On our tour of this closed site, the manager of the bison told us that he wanted people to see that we can all live alongside these animals. They are not dangerous, they are unpredictable. He was underlining something we have lost in regard to wildlife: respect. That is something I can get behind, planning the reintroduction of extinct megafauna with people in mind. There can be no other way to do it when our population is set to increase further in the coming decades.

What is the point of releasing these bison here? It’s conservation of a gene-pool. By introducing the animals in as many different locations around Europe it makes them more resilient to population loss, allowing their genetic diversity to to evolve and for inbreeding to be reduced.

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The work being done here was admirable. Rather than sitting in front of a computer postulating about the possibilities they are getting on with it. But how wild can rewilding this way actually be? The bison we saw here were penned in, accounted for and cared for, just like livestock. Our impact on the environment is now so far reaching that reintroducing larger animals immediately has connotations in terms of animal welfare. Many of the species we want back in the landscape travel long distances, are predators of livestock and are greatly feared by people, for reasons that are largely unfounded. In Britain we struggle to live with badgers, foxes, cormorants, hen harriers and wasps, let alone wolves or lynx.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a case in point but then its managers have never called it a rewildling project. They have no plan for how it should look and no desired outcome other than to learn from its results. It gives a sense of hope, perhaps that’s what so draws people to rewilding. We are growing bored of the endless stories of negativity when positives exist and must be sought. The very existence of nature is a positive that sometimes conservationists have to draw on to keep going. That should be the very point, whether it’s rewilding, nature conservation or simply good stewardship, we have a duty of care to the planet and its wildlife. Finding out the best way of making it work is the challenge we and wildlife face. That we can surely all agree on.

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I have just published a four song EP entitled Blackbird sing:

  1. Skylark
  2. Picking at the limes
  3. Blean
  4. Blackbird sing

You can download this EP for £4. Please do download it even if you don’t like birds or trees or folk music. To many of us, £4 is less than a pint, most people have too many pints.

All of the money received will be donated to the European Conservation Action Network to support with international conservation projects in places like Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia.

The songs are home recordings produced between 2012 and 2015, all written, recorded and ‘mastered’ by me at home. Photo, too.

– Daniel

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Wildlife does not heed national boundaries. EU funding, legislation and partnerships have led to benefits for our wildlife and ecosystems that a standalone UK could not have initiated. Britain’s membership of the European Union is often tabled as a threat to our sovereignty and freedom when in fact it has protected us from damaging policy decisions made by our own government. What has the EU ever done to help British wildlife? We must look back into the distant past to understand

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The making of a great divide

Consider the landscape of some 40,000 years ago: glaciers sat north of London, covering the whole of northern Europe. Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States all locked in ice. But the earth was going through a period of global warming that allowed a new species to spread into the landscape we know today as Europe. This species had complex social structures and big brains, had learned how to clear trees, build fire and to cook food. That species was us, Homo sapiens. Our stepping stone societies had made it out of Africa and across Siberia. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago and these first Europeans had found themselves in a landscape that was changing in ways they had never known. Their world, Europe, warmed, the glaciers retreated north, carving valleys, exposing unimaginably old rock formations, rearing up chalk and baring limestone, flooding the deepest lying valleys and trenches. But it was not just people who crossed this new landscape, wolves (the greatest of terrestrial travellers), lynx, bison, elk and deer all migrated across land opening and warming, leafing and flowering in a way it had not for over 100,000 years.

By 8,500 years ago the trenches and gullies that once will have seemed so high, so insurmountable to our ancestors, were submerged by what we now know as the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and most significantly in this case, the English Channel. Those animals (and I include Homo sapiens, of course) that did not cross in time, and that did not have wings with which to fly, were confined to Europe. The European ice sheets had melted and a critical divide had been made: Britain and Europe. For the next 8,000 years there were human attempts at passage and colonisation from Europe, and from Britain to Ireland and the now habitable Scottish isles. Some of these incursions are well known: the Roman invasion (43AD), the Vikings (9th century) and the Normans (11th century). There are some not so well known, like the early boats made from oak, chestnut and ash that will have capsized in their hundreds, their passengers never registered in history. On the shores today, many settled in their cities, towns and villages trumpet their near permanent roots in England, ignorant of the truth: the first Brits originated in Africa, arriving on foot via Russia 40,000 years ago. Further to this, we all depend on a system of food production developed by our ancestors in the Middle East. We are all the children of migration.

 

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The French connection

Ironically, British habitats are not so rich because of our separation from continental Europe both climatically and physically. On a landscape scale, take England’s chalk grasslands, a rare habitat home to species that have evolved in grasslands that pre-date the English Channel. At the tip of Kent, survey the fauna and flora of a chalky valley then catch a ferry across the water and see it equalled where it still exists. In Kent it’s called the Continental Southern Element, a place where plants like man orchid (above), pyramidal orchid, field eryngo, meadow clary and autumn lady’s tresses can be found, wildflowers that spread from southern Europe before the great flood some 8,500 years ago. Britain’s habitats are unique because we are an island. We have chalk grassland, ancient woodland, coastal dunes, freshwater lakes and river networks, saltmarsh, heather moorland, peat bog and mountain ranges. We have many of the habitats found across Europe, all encircled by one shoreline.

Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions. All of these problems are recognised by the European Union

A visit to many of Europe’s towns, cities and wild places, the encountering of common species that we call British, reminds us of our simple and close connections. A percentage of the beloved blackbirds and robins you see in your garden each winter are of Scandinavian stock, the Vikings of the bird world. The nightingales so loved by English literature, the swallows and swifts we welcome ‘home’ in spring, each are African birds, stopping off in Europe on their way to the UK. Each species is known to distant cultures and people who also feel a connection with their joyful freedom and music when we see them depart.

But our wildlife is in decline, our sparser diversity of species growing poorer. Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions, and even our own habitat, our cities, is poisoned by air pollution that stunts the lung development of our children, leads to mental ill-health, heart disease and shortens the lives of us all. And yet all of these problems are recognised by the European Union and our membership pressures our political leaders to act upon them. Bats are protected species, as are badgers, water voles and the great crested newt thanks to the Bonn and Bern Conventions. In England it is our very own government that ignores the protection of badgers. Our birds are supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, our rivers now improved thanks to support from the Water Framework Directives. I have volunteered on projects and received training in invasive species control thanks to EU funding so to me and my local area the benefit is tangible. On some of the most crucial issues regarding our collective wellbeing, the EU has stood up against our government to do what is right morally (and ecologically) for British people. Even Chancellor George Osborne wants Britain in the EU, someone who considers environmental protections like the habitats directives ‘red tape’ holding back economic growth.

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Europeans working together for nature

It is true that the EU is not perfect. The spread of agricultural intensification into areas of traditionally-farmed landscapes of southern and eastern Europe will accelerate the ecological breakdown already seen in England’s rural landscape. The owl-rich farms of Serbia, the meadows of Hungary and Romania will be degraded and reduced to a shadow of their species diversity if they ever fall prey to agricultural ‘improvement’. This will mean more pesticides and a disconnection between people and the land. Once gone, these traditionally-managed landscapes are hard to bring back. Their stewards might well have packed up and headed for the city by then. Strangely, in Britain our wildlife is better protected from agricultural intensification by EU membership. When considering the role the European powers have in protecting our environment, the case of declining pollinators like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects is worth noting.

In March 2013 the EU proposed a ban on systemic pesticides, otherwise known as neonicotinoids. This at first failed to achieve a majority of support and the ban could not be implemented. Why was a ban being proposed? Neonicotinoids were linked to declines in honey bee and other wild insect populations. This is because many agricultural plants are now grown from seeds which are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides. This means that the entire plant is toxic. When these plants grow and their remains fall into the soil the toxicity lives on, contaminating local water bodies and river networks. This toxicity is also linked to a decline in farmland birds in Europe. It’s a decline which is shared at home. One month later, in April 2013, the motion was tabled once more at appeal and the UK switched its vote from abstention to objection, but enough nations voted in favour and the hung vote was taken up and implemented by the European commission. In this instance, we require the EU member states to protect our wildlife and wellbeing from the vagaries of our own government. We also have the chance to influence policy in Europe, a continent which has far greater biodiversity than we. We should take heart from the fact that the European commission has taken action on the Polish government’s unscientific clear felling of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s largest ancient, lowland woodland.

Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at its very heart

In my mid-20s I was lucky enough to attend an EU funded placement volunteering in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. I saw then what EU money could do: support for local conservation projects that allow people, in this case shepherds, to contribute to the conservation of the lammergaier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that like so many does not heed national boundaries. This project with the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture was one of many EU funded projects supported by EuCAN, a Community Interest Company based in Dorset, England. There are partner projects in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Hungary that have benefited from the support of EuCAN and its EU funded teams of volunteers. In July 2013 I visited South Moravia in the Czech Republic to meet people I now consider friends, all of whom are working to encourage a kinship between people and nature, riches of which the English can but dream. In April 2015 I travelled by train to Romania to meet Barbara Knowles, who very sadly passed away in 2016. Barbara’s project, Treasures of Transylvania, works to promote traditional land management in order to sustain some of the richest habitats Europe has. Prince Charles has travelled to Romania to offer his support for the project. Barbara worked alongside Pogany Havas, a local initiative to support the same goals.

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Britain and Europe’s wildlife needs us

The truth is that without EU membership British organisations like EuCAN are even less likely to be able to receive funding and the alliance of EU-wide conservation is threatened with critical impairment. Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at the very heart of conservation. In England there is an unspoken rivalry between conservation groups (all of whom, it would seem, support EU membership, with 6% of the Wildlife Trusts’ income garnered from the EU and David Cameron’s RSPB endorsement of what the EU does for wildlife) but organisations like EuCAN and the Barbara Knowles Fund show that we all share a common aim and understanding on a local level, whatever our nationality: our ecosystems are suffering because of human impacts, people are becoming disconnected from the landscape and we need to do something about that, together. The impacts of human populations and industry are not going to go away and so we have to accept there will be change and find a way to influence it.

It can’t be denied that the European Union’s impact on nature is not all good, but that is the nature of the world we live in today, be it Britain, Europe or the Americas. Remember that it was the EU that enforced a bee-killing pesticides ban, that it is EU legislation which protects our wildlife and rivers, that funds so many of these local initiatives that connect people and nature. In Britain it is by being a part of this discussion that we as individuals can speak to our political representatives to make a case for a better union for nature. If Britain leaves the EU, we lose that power and our wildlife loses a lifeline. The British connection to Europe is clear in the history of our culture, landscape and wildlife. We are all Europeans, however far back our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage may take us. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a time when European nations were at war, when millions of people were dying in wars fought over European borders. We now live in an age where Holland and Belgium trade land to clarify their borders without the hint of bloodshed, simply the ruffle of papers and the clatter of a computer keyboard. Today we reach out to each other, across the Channel to recognise the need to preserve our wildlife and local traditions that maintain Europe’s diverse habitats. The EU has supported and will support this. In conservation we have a common European goal, we should cherish that.

 

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In April 2015 along with my hiking pal Eddie Chapman I travelled to Romania from London by train via Germany and Hungary. We had agreed two years ago to do this trip, something I had suggested after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the woods and the water where the 18-year-old Fermor documents part of his experience of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul. That was between 1933-35 before the collapse of the old European order with the World Wars and before the eventual shift to communism. Fermor’s Romania was still a thriving rural culture of haymaking and rivers flowing free. What we saw was different, communism having ended and Romania now a member of the European Union, capitalism stretching its tentacles into the farthest reaches of this vast nation with its mounds of plastic waste and the invasive plant species which thrive in a free market, globalised economy. But we still saw elderly people digging their own fields each day, hay ricks in back gardens and plenty of horses ploughing fields and transporting people around. We visited on the back of a sudden cold snap and so it was still winter, nevertheless we saw some wonderful wildlife and landscapes. We are very grateful to Barbara KnowlesRóbert Biró and Laci Demeter for showing us more of the Csík mountains and teaching us about the local culture and ecology. I also would not have known about this region without the work of Nigel Spring and EuCAN who run conservation trips to that part of Transylvania.

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We entered Romania by train from Debrecen, passing through to Cluj-Napoca. The manager of our guest house in the Hortobágy in Hungary had told us instead that Cluj is Kolozsvár, and is in fact a Hungarian city. This was of course not the first time we had heard about the issues between the two nations after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that saw the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary and two thirds of Hungarian territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian argument is that Magyar people have been present in what is now Romania for over 1000 years which gives them ownership (of course even that is a simplification on my part). Romanians point to Dacian settlement 1850 years ago, before the Hungarians were present in Transylvania. This is covered in greater detail by Walking the woods and the water, a book by Nick Hunt about retracing Fermor’s route to see what had changed in 2011.

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The journey across the border was not what we had expected. The detritus of the failed communist system was plain to see with vast areas of industrial land and infrastructure abandoned. I like what nature can do with these ‘wastelands’ but to see people still having to live in and around these places was a shock. This, allied with the amount of rubbish strewn through what would have been species-rich farm and meadowland, was disturbing and added to the toll of the long distance travel we had undertaken. I will never forget the sight of people having to live in tents of rubbish, with plastic nailed to pieces of timber to keep them dry. The argument for good housing for all struck home here.

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In Cluj I have never seen such sickly street trees with branches hacked to bits and choked by the wires that thread the streets together. Cluj as a city was best viewed from Cetățuia Hill where you can see the sensitive design of the Cluj-Napoca football stadium and the Apuseni Mountains in the distance, the city itself is a melange of capitalist-era hotels, communist apartment buildings and centuries-old architecture preserved in the old town. We had wanted to get into the Apuseni Mountains, famous for the skeletons of cave bears which were discovered in the 1980s, having become extinct 30,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered by ice.

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Our next destination was the Carpathian basin in eastern Transylvania, an area known as the Csík (Hungarian) mountains. The area is accessible by train from Brașov to Miercurea Ciuc (Romanian). The region is strongly Hungarian in culture and the city of Miercurea Ciuc is known in Hungarian as Csíkszereda. I had been in touch with conservationist Barbara Knowles who, through her project The Barbara Knowles Fund, was supporting local farmers in managing the mountain hay meadows in the region, some of which are the richest in Europe. Prince Charles has recently visited to highlight the importance of these habitats.

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Barbara put us in touch with Laci (pronounced Lot-see) Demeter, a local farmer and ecologist who owns a few hay meadows and acts as a local guide for the region. Laci was brilliant, with a great sense of humour. He knew all the birds and plant names in English as well as Hungarian and taught us a few of them in his native tongue. Marsh marigold, a buttercup that grows in damp ground and brooks is known as ‘stork’s messenger’ in Hungarian because its flowering in April indicates the arrival of the bird and the spring.

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We volunteered with Laci to remove some of the Norway spruce brash from the meadows so they could grow uninhibited in the coming months. Laci drove us into the mountains where snow still lay on the ground and butterbur and cowslip were the only plants coming into flower. The Carpathians were still shaking off winter. We saw nutcracker, raven and heard buzzards calling from overhead.

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In the valley below a group of men were working on constructing a small shelter for cheese-making in the summer months as part of a local common land cooperative. They were all being paid. How much could Britain benefit both ecologically, socially and economically from similar initiatives? The short-sighted, profit-driven focus of modern politics means we are unlikely to find out. At least Prince Charles is interested.

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We were invited for lunch with the workers and feasted on a pork stew with bread and the most common Hungarian ingredient – paprika. There was also enough beer for everyone, plus some watered-down pálinka. The sun was so intense even at this time of year that we had to inch our way into the shade while the Magyars sat comfortably in full sun.

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In the afternoon Laci took us to the top of one of the mountains, a gentle climb to overlook the unfolding peaks of the Carpathian basin. The meadows were still brown and wintry, snow melting under the sun’s rays. Laci pointed out the snuffling of wild boar and rolled their chocolate-like poo in his fingertips. He showed us the small dips in the ground which were evidence of the old style of felling trees – cut the roots in the soil and let the wind blow the tree over, leaving a space where the root plate used to be. It was thrilling to finally be in the Carpathians, a mountain range I had longed to see.

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On our second trip out with Laci we drove to a quarry that was a good site for eagle owl and where our esteemed guide knew they bred. We passed fields being ploughed by horses, a throwback to a bygone age in much of Europe.

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At the quarry I was distracted by the range of plants, particularly the anemones, and the above endemic to Transylvania, Anemone hepatica transylvanica. On the way here, in Bavaria, I had seen Anemone hepatica, a beautiful purple anemone and was very happy to be introduced to this special plant.

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That was not the only anemone growing in the quarry. The most famous and common, wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa), which I know well from the ancient woods of south London, was also present. This is a plant that struggles in the woods around where I live because of trampling and disturbance but in this part of Transylvania it grew in the old quarry with little to disturb it.

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There were signs of mammalian life in the quarry. Fires had been set in the quarry’s depths, with broken televisions and other detritus of the modern age. There was also detritus of another kind, with this possible bear or wolf scat. It was a pleasure to speculate on what might have passed through here, in both senses of the word.

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We rounded the quarry edge in silence, Eddie and Laci did, anyway. I sent down rock after rock as we made our way to the point where the eagle owls breed. Laci had been enticing us to overcome our apprehension about entering into this place by collecting a bouquet of feathers, not least this owl feather above. As we sat on the ledge where the birds roost, an eagle owl flew across the far side of the amphitheatre and out of view. Eddie missed it. He remained silent thereafter.

Csik lo-res-16There was also evidence of owl prey. Laci gathered together the remnant plumage of raven and buzzard. The size of the prey of this owl is astounding.

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Satisfied with our visit to the quarry, Laci drove us to one of his favourite sites, a 10-12,000 year old pond created during the last glacial period. Laci had bought pieces of land around the pond to try and protect it. Some farmers had been filling it with rubbish and trying to drain it for agriculture. It was a treasure trove of biodiversity, with the moor frog its most colourful species, turning blue in breeding season.

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Laci perched on the small mounds of sod dotted throughout the pond and fished out a great crested newt as he tried to collect a sample of fairy shrimp to show to us. It was in its breeding gear, a beautiful animal that is rare in England but common across Britain to the point of Asia. Its protection measures in Britain are famous for their severity and the ensuing failure to prosecute for any breach.

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We said goodbye to Laci, Barbara, our host Magda and the small village of Pauleni-Ciuc (Romanian), its centuries old spruce barns and horses. Now it was time to travel south to Brașov and then to Sinaia in the Carpathians proper.

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We arrived in Sinaia excited by the ascent of the railway into mountains that would eventually reach more than 2000m. We stepped into the tourist office in search of a map. The attendant thought we were idiots, rightly so: ‘The hiking season doesn’t start for another 60 days, do you have the right equipment? I shouldn’t really give you this map.’ His English was impressive, his scolding even more so. We whimpered and said something about how we wouldn’t do anything stupid.

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Our first hike was the only one that seemed accessible from Sinaia. We crossed through the railway station, literally across the tracks, over a bridge and through a pack of feral dogs (whose bark is far worse than their bite, by the way, we grew to appreciate them) and into the beech and spruce woods crowded by the snow-capped Carpathians. Entering into the mountains we were immediately met by signs warning us of the presence of bears.

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We got a good whiff of bear as we made our way up into the mountains, reminding us of our true place in the food chain. Homo sapiens has, through our cognitive revolution and technological march, excelled to the top of the table in one respect but the fear of large predators presented Eddie and I with a different feeling. It was frightening and exhilarating to find the bear prints congealing in the mud. We were reminded of our fragility as animals but I felt a sense of calm from the fact that, for once, I knew my place. We couldn’t be expected to deal with a bear.

Carpathians lo-res-19There were signs of them everywhere. We didn’t dare open our salami.

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The principle timbers of the Carpathian woodlands were beech and Norway spruce (the tree of choice in the Csík region), with some sycamore and hazel. We encountered these horses dragging beech trunks down from the alpine woods to a little camp guarded by angry dogs. The whooping calls of the woodsmen alerted us to their presence.

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Though we were in a truly wild landscape regarding large fauna, the rivers were in a sorry state. Many of the rivers around Sinaia, and indeed much of Romania, were concreted and dammed, some choked with plastic waste, others with logs caught on the lip of the concrete. These rivers were clearly once great but were now tamed, throttled by man.

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Away from the rivers and woodsmen we hiked for hours in complete solitude with only the company of jay and nutcracker, an eerie silence pervading at higher levels beyond the sound of our boots scuffing rocks and boulders as we scrambled.

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At the top of Mount Compatu a line of tracks was visible in the snow. Were these the footprints of wolf? There was absolutely no chance of encountering a wolf, but the fear simmered all the same.

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Whatever four-legged animal had left those prints, it was the closest we could get to the wild heart of the Carpathians. To walk in a landscape with signs of wolf, bear, boar and more was a dream realised.

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We left Romania exhausted by travel but with fond memories of the Hungarian region where we had spent time in the mountains and villages with local people. April is the wrong time to go for those who want to experience wildflower meadows and spring birds. It’s also the most dangerous time to encounter bears if cubs are present. Thankfully we only got a whiff. Romania and Transylvania has a great deal of bad press in Britain, mainly because of xenaphobic political positioning in the past few years from right-wingers (Boris Johnson) and liberals (Nick Clegg) alike and a book written by an Irishman over a century ago. In reality Romania is a massive, complicated country which cannot be generalised over and has no vampires. It is a place of great natural and cultural riches but also urban poverty and decline. Whether Hungarian or Romanian, its landscapes are species rich, wild and vast, its people welcoming and good humoured. Please support wildlife conservation and the people who enact it in this wonderful country.

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I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Los Picos de Europa working with FCQ on behalf of EuCAN, a Dorset-based conservation action group. FCQ are a conservation group working to protect the Bearded vulture, otherwise known as Quebrantahuesos in Spanish, “Bone-breaker” for its diet of bones (and not specifically bone marrow, as is commonly stated in avian literature). The bird is referred to as the Lammergeier (a German phrase) or in Latin as Gypaetus barbartus. “Bearded vulture” is a misleading term because the bird is not all vulture, and its beard is more a moustache.

The Fundacion is an all-action group based in Benia, Asturius in Northern Spain. The organisation aims to promote and aid the work of shepherds in the Picos. By doing so, an ancient aspect of Asturian culture can be maintained, and food for the Quebrantahuesos can be provided, also. The bird will eat the remains of sheep and goats that have died in the region, often waiting alongside Griffon vultures (Gypus fulvus) to finish their banquet of flesh until just the bones are left – the meal of the Quebrantahuesos.

The work of FCQ taught me that conservation is not purely ecological or environmental, but intensely cultural. What is different about conservation in the Picos compared to conservation in London, for example, is that it is a system whereby humans are still a part of the cycle. Conservation need not be purely aesthetic, as in the preservation of nature’s beauty, which is a common conception. In the case of the farmers of the Picos, it’s about preserving a way of life. If, perhaps, conservation in urbanised England represents a longing to return to a lifestyle much closer and in keeping with nature, then the work in the Picos is an attempt for people to maintain a lifestyle close to and dependent on the natural world.

Please click any image to view more photos on my Flickr page, and please visit the websites linked at the top and bottom of the page.

Diego and Jose at FCQ headquarters

Rafa shearing his sheep. This is an annual event for a shepherd, and EuCAN mucked-in to help with the workload, some 300 or more animals

The Picos glimpsed on either side of a vehicle

EuCAN and FCQ building Quebrantahuesos release pens. This is where the young will be reared and liberated from, into the mountains overhead

Two farmers in Belbin, a summer village in the Picos. The farmers spend the summer here making goats cheese

A Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), one of the many avian delights of the region

Woodland brown butterfly (Lopinga achine)

Nigel Burch moved to Spain thirty-years-ago. Trained in horticulture he runs a hotel and organic farm with his family in the Picos. Nigel has an apple orchard, livestock, vegetable gardens and resplendent wildflower meadows. He said his aim was to promote biodiversity and his land was living-proof of the benefits diversifying plant and animal-life can bring.

Cattle roam the Picos. The sound of cowbells jingling is commonly heard

Steve Bennett talks to an audience at the FCQ centre in Benia. Steve outlined the aims of EuCAN, the difficulties in securing funding for a not-for-profit organisation in a time of great financial strain for many European organisations and people alike

Diego & Chris take a breather during a 5-hour-long process of beam dragging. Low-carbon transportation is the law in the inhospitable terrain that much of the Picos poses. EuCAN joined forces with FCQ to build a bridge linking two valleys, the aim of which is to allow shepherds and their livestock access to another part of the Picos for further grazing. More livestock also means more food for the Quebrantahuesos


FCQ (Fundacion para la Conservacion del Quebrantahuesos)

EuCAN (European Conservation Action Network)

© All Rights Reserved, Daniel James Greenwood, 2011

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