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Monday, 23 July 2012

Wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania, Romania

Although wood-pastures are cultural and natural landscape elements of international importance, virtually nothing is known about their status and distribution in Eastern Europe in the wider conservation community
Figure 1. Ancient wood-pasture
Southern Transylvania
Although Romania is potentially rich in wood-pastures, only those from Southern (Saxon) Transylvania benefited of habitat surveys. Wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania were formed by the Saxon ethnic group through rearing the forests and grazing them with pigs, cattle, sheep and from the 18th century, buffalo. Each Saxon village had historically at least one wood-pasture in its vicinity. Wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania are dominated by oak (Quercus robur, Q. petraea), and occasionally by beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus).
Wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania are excellent systems for those interested in historical ecology, the history of nature resource governance, the dynamic of traditional social-ecological systems, and for ecologists (Akeroyd 2003, Hartel and Moga 2010).

The Saxon area of Transylvania has a long history of forest grazing. Saxons were allowed to manage their forests by the very beginning of their arrival in Transylvania, by a document commonly referred as ‘Andreanum’ (The Golden Charter of Transylvanian Saxons, 1224). Forest management at those times included also grazing in forests. A document originating in the 16th century showed that Transylvanian Saxons asked István Báthory (the Prince of Transylvania and the King of Poland, the Grand Duke of Lithuania) to empower local authorities to control grazing with sheep and pigs in the oak forests in their territory (Tescula and Gota 2007, Hartel and Moga 2010).
In bigger towns like Sighisoara and Medias, wood-pastures were also increasingly used for cultural events from the end of the 19th century.

Figure 2. Cultural event on the Breite wood-pasture: Skopationsfest,
sometime in the early 20th century
 (source of the picture:
The cultural-traditional relationships between people and wood-pastures sharply changed in the 20th century after the establishment of the communist regime. Many big, old trees were cut in this period. Old Saxons from Sighisoara relate that the trees from the Breite wood-pasture were so large that cutting them was impossible: explosives were used to remove then, and they were pulled out with heavy machinery.
Changes didn’t stop with the collapse of the communism in 1989. From an ethnic-social perspective, a significant change was the massive exodus of Saxons from Transylvania. With the collapse of the traditional Saxon institutions, the traditional links between wood-pastures and their forming and maintaining culture were broken. The grazing regime also changed in the Saxon area of Transylvania: a massive reduction occurred in the number of cows along with an almost complete disappearance of buffalos, due to social and institutional changes. This reduction in grazing triggered the development of shrubs and the forest regeneration in wood-pastures. Many large oaks were overgrown and killed by regenerating hornbeam.

Figure 3. Hornbeam development in an
 ancient wood-pasture where grazing was stopped.
Since 2007 European Union agri-environment payments have been available, and farmers are using this opportunity. They clean the shrubs from wood-pastures and start to use them again. Evidence of shrub clearance was noticed in 10 out of 42 wood-pastures inventoried in 2012. Because financial incentives continue to favour sheep grazing, the number of sheep has dramatically increased in these landscapes in recent years. The frequency of uncontrolled pasture burning is also showing an increasing tendency. Many people believe that the agri-environment payment system indirectly contributes to the increase of pasture burning, although such burning is illegal. Pasture burnings appear to contribute to the dramatic decline of old, veteran trees. In 2012, more than 40 veteran trees (with trunk circumference of more than 4 meters) were burned in this way, while most of the 155 oaks with more than 4.7 meter trunk circumference inventoried in 2009 and 2010 bear the signs of burning in the past. Old, dying veteran trees are more likely to be injured by people than the young trees. People often cut ancient trees to use them as firewood in winter, while other trees are burned deliberately. A number of old trees collapse due to natural causes (such as lightening and drought). The sharp degradation and disappearance of ancient trees requires the urgent implementation of conservation measures designed to protect them.

Figure 4. One of the many ancient trees burned 
in a wood-pasture near Sighisoara (spring, 2012). 
The fire was extinguished by a fireman.

Even with the above dramatic picture about the Transylvanian wood-pastures, we have reasons to believe that the next decades will catch the Saxon region of Transylvania with wood-pastures and ancient trees – and their degradation will be stopped. First, evidence about the distribution, status and ecological value of wood-pastures is increasing. Second, nature conservation, ecological education and cultural tourism initiatives are increasing in the region – ancient wood-pastures can be an important component of these initiatives. In this respect successful initiatives were the ‘Find the oldest tree’ and the ‘Oak day’ of the Mihai Eminescu Trust with tens of schools involved and wide media coverage. One of us (TH) give lectures in 17 schools for local communities about the ecological and cultural value of the scattered and ancient trees in 2012. Third, there are many organizations interested in nature and cultural heritage conservation. Fourth, the international visibility of the wood-pastures and the region as a whole is increasing. The region tends to be attractive not only to high profile research teams from Western Europe but also to non-academics interested in nature. In combination, these various activities appear to be creating fertile ground for establishing new links between wood-pastures and people – to the benefit of both.

Figure 5. The biggest known living oak from
Southern Transylvania (in the village Mercheasa)
and the kids who find it:
 Dana Pelei and Sebastian Pelei (
General School, Rupea)
– the winners of the competition ‘Find the oldest tree’.
The oak have 930 cm circumference.
Akeroyd J. 2003. A Transylvanian wood-pasture. Plant Talk 34: 34-37.
Hartel T., Moga C.I. 2010. Good practice management of wood-pasture habitats. Mihai Eminescu Trust. (in Romanian)
Tescula N., Gota A. 2007. The history of the Breite wood-pasture. In: The management plan of the Breite wood-pasture reserve. (in Romanian)

Tibor Hartel – Mihai Eminescu Trust, Sighisoara, Romania; Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany
 Ine Doresteijn - Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. E-mail:
Anne-Catherine Klein - 7 rue du trèfle Wintzenheim France. E-mail:
Cosmin Ioan Moga – Ecotransilvania Association, Sighisoara, Romania. E-mail:  
Árpád Szapanyos – Ecotransilvania Association, Sighisoara, Romania. E-mail:
Marlene Röllig – Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. E-mail:
Kinga Öllerer – Institute of Biology, Romanian Academy, Bucharest, Romania. E-mail:
Joern Fischer – Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. E-mail:

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