Written by Andrew Power
Photos Courtesy of Ben Porter
I travelled to Romania this summer for the first time to join the Operation Wallacea Transylvania team. I have always been a wildlife nut, growing up in Ireland, bird watching and catching butterflies since I can remember. Naturally, I decided to study Zoology in Trinity College Dublin and in 2012 I completed a Masters of Research in the University of Nottingham in Conservation Biology. Since then I’ve worked on numerous projects from remote tropical islands to the high mountains of the South Sinai in Egypt. Most of my work has focused on birds and butterflies and so it was no surprise that I joined the Opwall team as….farm survey leader!
The biodiversity of the Tarnava Mare is breath-taking. Stepping foot in Richis (the first Opwall village) in Transylvania for the first time was like travelling back in time. It was a bittersweet moment for me. On the one hand it was amazing to see this extraordinary landscape up close but on the other hand it really emphasised how much wilderness Europe has lost to development and intensive agriculture. This is what Ireland should be like. Tourists visit my home to see the green fields, but those fields are barren and empty (for the most part). The fields and woods here are alive, you can hear the difference before you see it; buzzing crickets, singing Corncrakes, hooting Owls and barking deer. Why is the area so special? The farming methods they use here are medieval and have been unchanged for centuries, non-intensive and not commercial. That’s why I decided to do farm surveys; I wanted to meet the people who make this a haven for the birds and butterflies (and everything else) and see their methods up close. The opportunity to be the bird ringing assistant to Ben also lured me to the project!
I’m used to working in isolated environments with no people and lots of wildlife so it was strange to lead students around Romanian farms. At the farms we were greeted with smiles and I was pleased to get a glimpse into the rural culture (and agriculture) of Transylvania. We interviewed the farmers about their practices, the size of their land and their plans for the future so that we could see if their way of life and this landscape is under threat. The two biggest threats to this environment are land abandonment, as people leave in search of a new livelihood, and intensive agriculture. It’s a huge temptation for farmers to abandon traditional methods in favour of larger more commercially viable farms. Luckily Fundatia Adept (www.fundatia-adept.org) is supporting farmers using traditional methods by helping them be more competitive in the European market and promote their produce. They achieve this through the establishment of farmers markets, merchandising workshops, education and helping them obtain EU grants (and much more). It’s our job to collect as much data as we can to support the local farmers and Fundatia Adept in safeguarding the future of this outstanding area. We want them to be proud of their heritage and environment and for them to make some money from it too!
However farm surveys didn’t last long for me, 2 days in fact! Unfortunately, James O’Neill the butterfly survey leader had to leave the project prematurely and I stepped in. Luckily I love butterflies; it was my first Zoological passion…..after dinosaurs! I’m a member of Butterfly Conservation Ireland, regularly take part in Butterfly monitoring schemes and for my Masters I carried out the first ever study of on one of the rarest butterflies in the world, the Sinai Hairstreak. Transylvania is a Lepidopterist’s dream, on my first day as butterfly survey leader I saw more species than you can see in an entire Irish Summer. Jackpot. Every day we conduct 6 butterfly transects through the wildflower meadows. Butterflies are a brilliant group to monitor for two reasons; firstly they are an indicator species. Butterflies are intrinsically linked to their hostplant (what their caterpillars feed on) so the presence of certain species indicates the presence of certain plants and therefore can tell us the habitat quality. Generally speaking the more species of butterflies you have the better the habitat is. They are also easy to catch and easy to identify (mostly!) so they are the prefect species to monitor. We’ve been walking the same transects for the last 4 years (when the project began) and this will allow us to monitor population trends of butterflies and the habitat quality of the region. We have 12 transects in each village and we visit 7 villages during the summer.
Butterflies are most active during the heat of the day so we survey them from 10:00am to 16:00pm. While it can be tiring being out in the sun all day (especially for a ginger bearded Irishman), it is hugely rewarding. There is so much to hear and see as well as the butterflies. We’ve seen Grass and Smooth snake, numerous frogs and toads, Eagles, White Storks, dozens of Red-backed Shrikes, Bear tracks (still waiting for the real thing, 5 were seen by a group last week!), Deer and a huge array of wildflowers. The smell of wild mint and lavender completes the assault on the senses. Seeing hundreds of butterflies, from the spectacular Swallowtails and Fritillaries to the more common Marbled Whites, gliding over the meadows is unforgettable.
It’s not only the wildlife that is special about Transylvania it’s also the people. I’m used to working in extreme isolation away from people with only the animals for company. Last summer I spent 4 months living in a lighthouse, on an island the size of a football pitch, with one other person to protect 10,000 breeding Terns! The local Romanians have been so welcoming, catering to all our needs no matter how crazy they are. My fellow survey leaders and translators are an incredible bunch of people; between us we have experts in Moths, Bats, Butterflies, Mammals, Reptiles, Wildflowers, Romanian culture, Mushrooms, traditional woodcraft and much more. There is always something to look at it here, it’s impossible to be bored. But it’s the students, research assistants and dissertation students that really brings the place to life. I’ve really enjoyed the enthusiasm and energy of all the visitors here, watching them chase manically after butterflies in the name of science after only picking up a net for the first time is always great fun. You can’t beat the expedition atmosphere.
Thanks to Ben Porter for letting me use his incredible photos. You can see more of his pics on this website: www.benporterwildlife.co.uk