Buffalos and cows as amphibian pond managers in a traditional rural landscape

by Tibor Hartel

Few days ago I posted an entry about buffalos from Southern Transylvania.  These animals in combination with cows created and maintained a number of ponds scattered in the grazed landscape, suitable for endangered amphibians like the Yellow Bellied Toad. Now I return to this topic – because I feel it is important.

The below movie was made near the village Coves. This communal pasture is now grazed by 10 buffalos, 60 cows and 40 horses. The image of buffalos cooling themselves in these ponds seem to be very attractive for shepherds because many of them remembered and talked about this with happy smile in their face.

In the past (i.e. before 1989) the number of buffalos exceeded 150 in this village. According to the shepherd, their number dropped recently because ‘noone pay for the buffalo milk’. The overvegetation of the wetlands due to the reduction of the buffalos and cows already visible in Southern Transylvania.

Pond now dominated by dense vegetation. Yellow bellied toad may be present in such wetlands but if it have the chance to select for one with less vegetation, will do that.

Wetland dominated now with Juncus sp.

Ponds with too much vegetation are unattractive for amphibians and have shorther hydroperiods. Solutions should be found to maintain a handful of buffalos and cows in each village of these landscapes in order to maintain these ponds. It is still possible to restore many habitats with these animals, and the yellow bellied toads and other amphibians are still common. Later this possibility will sharply decrease.

I would have an other argument for maintaining these little herds in these traditional rural landscapes, besides their huge cultural and ecological importance: one with a more meditative nature, a kind of ‘cultural’ / aesthetic service if you want. Being between these animals in such a landscape setting, one may have the feeling of being between friends, and that there is time for everything and the most important things to make us happy in this life are indeed the very little things surrounding us.  Such a feeling cannot be achieved e.g. with a herd of 5000 animals in a ‘production’ landscape, where animals lost their ‘personality’ (because in traditional communities most of, if not all animals have names, have personalities. Just as people. They are not just numbers and statistics as in the modern world).

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6 thoughts on “Buffalos and cows as amphibian pond managers in a traditional rural landscape

  1. Hi Kate – many thanks. Hard question, but what I can see is that water in fountains is still largely good for drinking in these villages (therefore I guess that soil water is not so contaminated), many species of invertebrates are still present in ponds and running waters which suggest that these have good quality from ecological perspective, and soil errosion was not and still is not a significant problem (i.e. noone talk about it, in my perception).

    I think these issues should be context (region) dependent.

    In the Saxon landscapes – what we see today in terms of number of grazing animalsis just a little part of that what was here traditionally. It seems that these landscapes can carry more grazing animals. Historical suggest that they were much more in the past. Historical sources also point out clearly that Saxons carefully ‘monitored’ the ‘carrying capacity’ of these lands. We have historical records saying that in certain areas grazing with sheep was completely forbidden to maintain the grassland productive (for cows and buffalos).

    Anyways, it is hard to answer your question regarding tradeoffs. Surely the current landscapes still provide good water to drink, without any chemical threatment. We all (the ‘Fischer team’) go to a place called ‘Danes’ and fill our botles with fresh water delivered by nature directly. Whole villages drink water in this way. That can be a good signal that no matter what kind of management happened on the surface through centuries (kinds of fast variables – and there were many changes as pointed out in a previous entry) the water quality and the ability of these ecosystems to clean it remained good and strong.

    Do you have kind of ‘baseline’ in Canada and Australia which could be used as reference point for ‘setting’ grazing regime?

    Because here, in Transylvania, we seem to have. Well, it is still not fully explored and scientifically documented, but we could have a social-ecological optimum above which we can talk about over pressing these natural systems, and above which the land abandonment start.

    Maybe I am too chaotic, sorry. To be short: I think, the answer is ‘no’ (if I understood the question well).

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tibi. I agree that recommendations must be region and context-specific. My grad student, Kate Goodale, reminds me that your buffalo/frog relationship is likely another case of the adaptation of native species to ancient agricultural practices (perhaps co-evolution), a history we lack in Canada or Australia.

    It surprises me that with the topography of central Transylvania, erosion has not been an issue. Erosion and related water quality issues related to grazing in riparian areas are considerable here in Nova Scotia and only likely to increase with local climate weirding: more frequent and powerful storms, for instance. What is on the horizon for your study area? And what is harder to replace, or easier to lose, from a risk management perspective: potable water/soil stability or the buffalo/frog dynamic?

    A social-ecological optimum grazing regime is an interesting idea, fraught with intractable tradeoffs, but this is I suppose what we are all working towards in our different ways.

    • PS: I sent this to a wetland ecologist colleague, who replied, “I’m not convinced a grazer-maintained system should be considered a healthier ecological state than the ungrazed condition. I’m betting water quality, biodiversity and overall production are all lower in the grazed condition. Yes, certain species may coexist (the frog) but many will not.”

  3. Many thanks Kate – useful information but I still keep the above mentioned context dependency as possibility. (context here means: historic grazing management, livestock species, their number, rotation type, landscape context continent etc.). In the mountainous area of Romania the increased grazing result in pond eutrophication and this is visible but those are ‘pristine’ environmnets. I was refering to historic farming landscapes. Nice greetings, Tibi

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