Ancient wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania

By Tibor Hartel

Cultural landscapes are considered one of the most important elements of the European cultural and historical identity. Why are these landscapes so special? I think the very ‘simple’ fact that they exist today, in their richness and beauty shows that they were sustainably used over centuries by people. Therefore they are special. Traditional landscapes and societies may represent a kind of living connection between the present and the ancient past, and a potentially huge resource for us to learn.

Traditional rural landscape with forest, wood-pasture and open areas (Viscri). Picture made by Anikó Kovács

Wood-pastures of Southern Transylvania, Romania, are cultural and natural landscape elements created by Saxons. They are made by oak (Quercus robur and Q. petraea) trees scattered in a grazed landscape previously covered by forest. Wood-pastures are typically close to villages (each village had at least one wood-pasture) and have up to 300-400 hectare area.

Landscape with wood-pasture near Mercheasa

Some scattered trees may become really old and big, having more than 500 years. Given the sharp changes and increasing instabilities of our days, it is almost hard to imagine that a tree can stay in a pasture for more than 500 years. And generations of people pass during that time and the trees remain. This is really impressive.

This oak from Mercheasa is probably the oldest and certainly the biggest living being from Southern Transylvania. It has a circumference of 930 cm. It was discovered by two kids from Mercheasa village, within a competition entitled ‘Find the oldest oak’ organized by the Mihai Eminescu Trust.

Wood pastures were created for grazing (mostly with cows, since Saxons preferred cows more than sheep) but they were used also for acorn production (which was grazed by pigs in autumn) and the scattered trees were shadowing places for people and animals. In some places like Sighisoara, wood-pastures were important places for cultural maniphestations. Wood-pastures were and still are important places for recreation (e.g. walking tours, photography, naturalist trips) especially in Sighisoara.

An old tree is never alone. Painting made by Alexandra Butnariu for the ‘Oak Day’ organized in the Breite Wood-Pasture by the Mihai Eminescu Trust.

Besides the cultural, economic and recreational importance, wood pastures are very important for biodiversity. The old trees have many dead parts, which are attractive for a number of insects and other organisms. Wood-pastures have rich bird including woodpecker communities. The scattered old trees may extend the habitat for forest organisms. In fact some tree related insects (e.g. the capricorn beetle the stag beetle) and woodpeckers may be more common in wood pastures than in the surrounding exploited forests e.g. because the exploited forests may lack old, dying or dead trees. Wood-pastures may have high bat activity because the scattered trees contain many hollows and provide insects which represent the food for these animals.

Woodpecker hollows in the trunk of an oak.

A dead trunk covered with moss and other plants and filled with some kids.

In biology and geography classes teachers may say that the northern part of the tree is covered by moss, because this part is humid and shadowed. What they may rarely say is that the tree need to have a certain size for these differences induced by exposure to become obvious. This tree clearly indicate north.

Now ancient wood-pastures are under serious threat because of a number of reasons. First, people don’t value the scattered trees nowadays as they did in the past. There is no grazing with pigs anymore therefore there is no need for acorn. The ancient trees are cut by people and used for fire because they perceive them as dead wood. Some trees are burned in wintertime by shepherds or other people for fun. Dead trees are not replaced with new ones. It is hard to speculate why all these are happening, but certainly these maniphestations and attitudes are recent. It may be because of the collapse of the Saxon institution? (most of villages have no Saxons anymore). Or is this part of a general change affecting the rural areas of Eastern Europe? We don’t know, but if this degree of degradation continues, wood pastures will likely disappear in the coming decades.

Burned oak.

Second, the land abandonment results in reforestation. The old trees are sensitive to this factor – and may be killed by the young hornbeam. Sometimes we can see in the marginal areas of young forests dead old trees – which suggest that in the past that area was wood-pasture.

Hornbeam massively growing after the abandonment of grazing.

When the forest grow, the old oaks die. But they still remain biodiversity VIP`s for decades, therefore if the forest management for biodiversity is desired, these trees should not be removed.

What can we do to halt the overall deterioration of wood pastures? I think, many good things. Many trees are dying because of wrong perceptions: some people may believe that they clean the pasture by removing old trees. Awareness may help in stopping the burning and the various injuries caused by people to the old trees. Creating incentives for using the pastures for grazing will stop forest regeneration and may save old trees. Generating a better understanding about the importance of scattered trees for grazing ecosystems would give and extra argumentation for protecting them. I would bring many people in wood pastures to show them the beauty of these trees. Personal experience in ten years of educational activities on the Breite wood pasture showed clearly that people can attach to these trees. I would make these trees known in wider areas of Europe. I know that local people can change their attitude and behavior toward built and landscape heritage if they receive many positive feedbacks from international level. Taken separately (and together) the above points should not be so hard or impossible to made; but they can make a huge difference for the ancient wood-pastures.

‘Oak Day’ – organized by the Mihai Eminescu Trust. The main objective of this activity was to create a bridge between the wood-pasture and people from the town Sighisoara. The event was a great success.

With my friend Kuno Martini we lead the naturalist workshop within the ‘Oak day’ where people had opportunity for knowing more about the biodiversity of the reserve and to observe wild animals.

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6 thoughts on “Ancient wood-pastures from Southern Transylvania

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