Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Europe’

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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.

Cluj lo-res

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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Beardie blog pic-1

Bearded tit at Hortobágy-Halasató

In April 2015 my good friend Eddie Chapman and I visited the Hortobágy in the Great Hungarian Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site designated as ‘an exceptional surviving example of a cultural landscape constituted by a pastoral society’. Hortobágy is a small town in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, three hours east of Budapest by train and a little bit to the west of Debrecen. The area is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and we were visiting on our way to Romania by train. The main focus of our visit, being without a car and dependent on public transport, was the fishpond complex known as Hortobágy-Halastó (Halastó meaning ‘fishponds’ in Hungarian). Halastó was ‘dripping’ with birdlife. This vast area of water was cut through with a single gauge railway (which we never used) and a mile-long, single file footpath. We saw a long-eared owl sleeping in a bird box, six eagles in the sky at once, marsh harrier at every turn and many other wonderful species. In the town, storks cavorted in front gardens and battled for prominence on streetlamp platforms placed there to support the storks. I had wanted to visit the region for several years after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 account in Between the Woods and the Water, as the teenage Fermor travelled from Rotterdam to Instanbul on foot. To see this area of land over ground hid none of Europe’s failings: people living in rubbish, vast areas of land devastated by extractive industries, huge infrastructure projects half built and deserted, rivers channelled, concreted and their banks denuded, and more rubbish, so much rubbish. But we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes and villages and guided us around the lands they call their own. The wildlife we encountered, for an early spring visit, was incredible. I recommend the excellent Crossbill Guide for anyone visiting.

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The Great Hungarian Plain or ‘Puszta’ is known for its flatness. The phrase Puszta was created after the Magyar (Hungarian) population was decimated in the 1200s by Mongol invasion and then the black death. It refers to the emptiness of the landscape after those devastating events. The Magyars settled in the Great Plain at the end of the 800s and they are seen as the founders of the land we now know as Hungary.

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230-140 million years ago the Plain was covered by the Tethys Sea, which is described as ‘the mother’ of the Mediterranean. Later, the Pannonian Sea was created with the formation of the Alps and Carpathian mountains surrounding it. The eventual draining of water from the landscape led to a unique mixture of soils, namely loess and clay, the former created when glaciers grind down underlying bedrock. As a student I read Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and other stories and fell for these endless landscapes and the people (in Chekhov’s case Russian) who had to live from them. Chekhov didn’t miss their wildlife though, his short story The Steppe reveals its hidden life, death and beguiling beauty. As in Chekhov, first impressions of the Great Plain give the sense of a deserted landscape. In reality it was alive with wildlife: white stork, buzzard, roe deer, corn bunting, butterflies, wildflowers, boxing hare, red fox. These were only the things we could see. We missed the steppe tarantula and ground squirrels.

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In the town of Hortobágy white storks were a common sight. They arrive in spring from their wintering grounds in Africa, building their famously large nests on platforms erected to support them. We saw tens of white stork in the town itself, some seen at dusk walking around in front gardens, sometimes in very small spaces. From a distance they looked like people, blurred either by heatlines or crepuscular light. We noticed that house sparrows were building nests of their own underneath the mass of twigs put together by the stork. There was tension between the storks with a number attempting to intrude upon the scene pictured above. The birds are silent but for a bill ‘clacking’ gesture, evidently territorial.

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Yellow wagtail is a spring migrant to Europe which is in severe decline in Britain. There were a good number of them on the Plain. Being bright yellow with a grey head, it’s easy to mistake the more urban and common grey wagtail for this bird.

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The only way for us to get around was to travel by train, the only time that we were really able to mix with local people. For the untrained, Hungarian is a pretty inaccessible language, with no relation to Latin or Western languages, it descends (or ascends) from Finnish. We tried our best but could only really master egészségedre (‘to your health’ or ‘cheers’) after a week in Hungary. The railways were typically post-war Communist, pumping out black fumes and chuntering along. But they were always on time and provided a lifeline for people who had no other means of transport. No one gets around on horseback like they did when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 20th century, when ‘carts drawn by horses and oxen easily outnumbered the motor cars’ (p.44).

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Both Eddie and I were struck by the struggles of people in the places we visited. It was at times impossible to see the trip as a holiday, particularly because of what we saw from the windows of our train as it passed from Debrecen over the border into Romania. I like old buildings crumbling around and lament their loss from London (I know there is a housing crisis) and took a few photographs of some that were around the Halastó station.

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Having travelled in the Czech Republic and Poland, I’m not a big fan of what communism has done to the landscape. The former Soviet Union has also contributed greatly to global warming with its industrialisation of much of rural Europe. Its architectural merits are also lost on me. I’m not a fan of what modern capitalism is doing either, via agricultural intensification, oil and fracking. But agricultural intensification is something that communism welcomed with open arms, rounding up the smaller farms and destroying millions of hectares of natural grasslands, woods and rivers in the process. Today agricultural intensification is the biggest threat to the steppe grasslands of Europe and Asia, making them some of the most threatened habitats on earth.

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This was the door to the station building, now housing sparrows. I should say that dilapidated housing and other buildings do not mean people in the area are suffering or unhappy. Here people seemed perfectly content with life on the surface. No one was homeless and the National Park appeared to be offering good support to the local community through ecotourism.

Hortobagy blog pics-13 More charming for the outsider were the individual thatched cottages dotted across the landscape. The evidence of how inhospitable this landscape is for trees can be seen by the two here sheltering next to the cottage. Whether this was used to shelter livestock or dry hay is unclear to me.

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We arrived at the Halastó fishponds on foot. The reeds from 2014 were being cut and piled into these pyramids, neatly put in rows. The thatch from the cottage in the previous image will likely have come from the vast reedbeds of Halastó. The reedbeds supported an amazing array of birds, this even before the spring migrants had arrived.

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Marsh harriers could be seen at every corner of the landscape, flying low over the reedbeds in search of food. Upon leaving, we were shaking our heads at the sheer number of these birds of prey. We missed them when we’d left.

Hortobagy blog pics-19 Another bird of interest for us was the pygmy cormorant, relative of the great cormorant which I know from the River Thames in London, and most waterbodies, really. Seeing these birds perched on branches low in the reeds was like looking back into the prehistoric swamps of Europe.

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A line of dying trees at the edge of the fishponds were fitted with open bird boxes. The boxes were a form of social housing for kestrels, what I later found to be lesser kestrel (thanks to Nigel Spring for pointing this out to me), a separate species to the common kestrel we have in Britain. There were several more kestrels out of sight but my lens couldn’t quite capture the scene.

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Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.

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Ever since reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the film The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), I had wanted to see cranes. They are returning to England as a breeding bird for the first time in 400 years, once being a common species of marsh and fenland before their habitat was drained for agriculture. These birds were often eaten by royalty in England. The Latin name Grus grus points directly to the noise they make. These birds flew over our heads as we watched the kestrels and sleeping owl.

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For wildlife to be protected successfully in the long term there has to be some benefit for humans as well. Fishponds have been present in Eastern Europe since medieval times and were created for royalty. Today they have a much more wide ranging commercial value and there is conflict to be found between those who like to pull fish from the water and those who like to watch birds pull fish from the water. Here we happened upon workmen extracting fish from one pond into the back of a lorry.

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Climbing up one of the lookout posts, Eddie happened across six eagles flying on thermals over the fishponds. I managed to get this photo of what we think are mainly white tailed eagles with a possible lesser spotted eagle, though that may have been out of the picture. Later we saw a white tailed eagle sitting in the mudflats of a drained fishpond, taking to the air with deep wafts of wingbeats.

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The sunsets of the Puszta are famous. We encountered this scene on our first day walking back from the fishponds. At this point we were turning back and forth between the setting sun and a pristine red fox trotting along the edge of the path. Corn buntings flocked and roe deer attempted to escape our view with nothing but the blur of the horizon to disappear into.

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Mutěnice fish ponds

South Moravia, Czech Republic, July

I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:

‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.

A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.

‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’

Why is that?

‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.

I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.

But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:

‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’

‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’

‘And are goshawks protected by law?’

‘Of course.’

We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.

‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.

That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.

White stork

Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.

‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.

They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.

Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.

One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.

‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’

We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:

‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.

This is an extract from an upcoming collection, Travels in South Moravia

Links:

Karel’s website

Conservation in South Moravia

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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