In Viscri at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, the sky is exploding. The sky was darkening as we sat in the cobblestone courtyard of No 22 eating our tasty lunch of chicken soup followed by apricot cake, surrounded by prowling cats, a scruffy black and white hound, and a coterie of chickens and turkeys. As plans were confirmed for the afternoon the rain began and my afternoon survey was called off, and I’m grabbing a few priceless minutes to at last write my blog.
It’s just after breakfast on Tuesday morning in Viscri, Transylvania and the dust is settling where two minibuses loaded with 45 students predominantly from Sevenoaks in Kent but with a group from Glasgow, rolled down the road, passing a horse-drawn cart and villagers sat outside their houses enjoying the morning sunshine. The first of the OpWall students for the Romania 2013 season were heading back to Sighisoara for a day of sightseeing and a relaxed evening meal before catching a 6am flight home. It was a sad moment there was no doubt. We had certainly worked very hard and the cracks were definitely beginning to show toward the end, but most of the students bought enthusiasm and a keen sense of fun (mischief?) I have no doubt that some of them had life changing experiences. For the scientists, myself included, their departure was an opportunity to take much needed down time and restore our energy levels before the next group arrives on Wednesday afternoon.
Viscri is the third and largest village on our itinerary so far. A very impressive fortified church dominates the now familiar red-slate roved houses. When descending from the hills on our walk over from Mesendorf, I felt like we could be descending into a Romano British villa circa 43 AD. We were all very pleased to finally have beds and hot water after a week and a half under canvas in Crit and Mesendorf and suffering cold showers. The sun is now with us, bringing 30 degree heat, almost daily afternoon thunderstorms and some very trying survey conditions.
We are all well used to the patterns of our own survey agendas now. There are three transects at each village to the north, south and a third through the centre usually following a river. I’m up first at 5:3am if I have set the mammal traps, followed by Paul on Bird transects at 6am. I am usually back for breakfast for 7:30, then out again on Herp Surveys (Lizards and Amphibians) from 8:30 until 1pm. Nathan and Bruce conduct butterfly and plant transects during the day, while Roger and Nicole make visits to farms to study cattle health and offer advice on environmental stewardship payments. I am out again at 3pm to do more Herp surveys and set mammal traps, then I will co-lead with Paul amphibian and bird-call back surveys in the evening. Each of us is accompanied by our fabulous Romanian guides Dragos, Marcella, Sylvia and Tudor who are all environmental engineering students.
While we are out Rory delivers lectures and supports Carys, our boss, in making sure everything is running according to plan. Which it doesn’t always by any means. Students and staff are sometimes sick, rooms pre-booked disappear . Rory also plays some mean Ukulele and when we do get a chance to busk together we drive Carys up the wall.
Transylvania is stunningly rich in biodiversity. On our transects we are striding knee-deep through rich biodiverse grasslands. The grassland survey team are looking for indicators of unimproved, high nature value grasslands such as yellow scabious, sanfoin, crown vetch, charterhouse pink and lady’s bedstraw, and we are finding these in abundance. There are also less welcome yet still beautiful species such as chicory and agrimony indicating improvement. These are the once grazed or sown meadows that have been abandoned and are now showing signs of scrubbing up. The hillsides around Viscri are particularly degraded from intense grazing and lack of traditional management with some of the hillsides scrubbing up with hawthorn and blackthorn bushes. However this is excellent reptile habitat. I have found common (viviparous) lizard Lacerta vivipara, sand lizard Lacerta agilis , meadow lizard Lacerta praticola and in Crit the fabulous Eastern green lizard Lacerta viridis, bright green with a vividly blue chin.
My small mammals surveys have been disappointing however and I am reviewing my methodology for the next group. I have been endeavouring to sample four habitats with a single nights trapping in each, and this doesn’t appear to be enough. I am catching almost exclusively the wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus, although I am please to have caught a couple of Striped Field Mice Apodemus agrarius. I had until yesterday been perplexed by the lack of voles, until I caught a beautifully ruddy-backed bank vole Myodes glareolus, but to support the need to change tactics this was after trapping in the woodland for a two day period. Part of the problem is being unable to leave traps in situ during the day, unless this is in the most dense areas of grass and scrub, simply because there is so much agricultural activity from hay cutting to grazing. I have already lost 12 traps from one site.
We are picking up some more casual small mammal records during transect walks. Not only the common shrew Sorex araneus but also the lesser white-toothed shrew Crocidura suaveolens, much lighter in fur-colour and with an obvious sparse fringing of long hairs along its tail. My heart jumped when a brown hare bolted from a tall patch of grass in front of me.
There is bear sign everywhere. In the meadows you can easily find anthills dug out by bears, areas of sometimes quite large disturbance with big clumps of soil and turf turned over quite ulike any other animal. There are some badgers and foxes too. Tell-tale scats, usually full of cherre stones, are plentiful up trails and through the beech, oak and hornbeam woodland, the signs of both polecats and beech and pine martens. I had brought some larger traps but have been unsuccessful in capturing a larger mammal yet. Adept, OpWalls local NGO partners have been running large mammal surveys in the evenings and setting camera traps. Bears have been seen up-close twice and, arguably more excitingly, a wolf. Much rarer in these parts has been caught on camera. Sadly none of the OpWall staff have yet been out on this survey, but I am hoping to go before I leave.
Transylvania is an amazing place for European visitors, particularly form those countries such as England who have lost a great deal of its biodiversity. Here you can easily see the plants and animals that you can see if you try harder and look further in England, and species we have lost and some we never have had. As I mentioned before there are moments when I feel like I might be in the England of the romans and other times when I might be in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. The cobbled street lined by simple brick-built houses covered in lime render, animals and farm machinery are everywhere. On the occasional day when I have a lie in and make breakfast for 7:30, I meet locals coming back from the fields who have already put in a day’s scything now that July 1st has passed.
I was hoping to learn some more from Roger about how environmental stewardship is supporting Romanian farmers in Producing High Nature Value Grasslands but sadly he has also left with our first group after becoming too ill to continue. He suspects he may have picked up a a bacterial infection from unpasteurised cheese offered to him on one of his farm visits. We are being very careful about food!
We await our School groups from Austin, Texas and Manchester. Now I have finished my first blog I will catch up with my sleep before our evening meal. Tonight we celebrate the end of the first two weeks and Bruce’s birthday, reflecting on how lucky we are to be in this beautiful and inspirational country
Below: Lacerta vivipara Viviparous lizard
Below: The hills above Viscri, Transylvania
Bombina variegata Yellow bellied toads
Lacerta agilis Sand Lizard
A fritillary butterfly
On the move between Mesendorf and Viscri, Rory plays some tunes
Lacerta viridis Eastern green Lizard