NEW PAPER: A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania


Yesterday, Ecology and Society published our paper on a assessment of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania (full paper can be found here). The paper is meant to give you a flavour of the threats and opportunities faced by this beautiful but also troubled part of Europe. Besides that, I think it nicely reflects the inter- and transdisciplinary nature of our project, and we as a team have put quite some effort into all the bits and pieces that went into that paper over the last two years.

Graphical summary of the methodological steps

Fig. 1: Graphical summary of the methodological steps

In this study, we apply a holistic approach (see Fig. 1 for a methodological overview) that considers multiple scales, spatial heterogeneity and uncertainties in order to get a better understanding of the dynamics of this particular social-ecological system. The approach starts with characterising the local social-ecological conditions throughout the study area, using villages as the units of analysis. We combined this local understanding with a description of the regional system dynamics, and we developed a spatially explicit understanding of current development trends for eight different variables (e.g. land use intensification, forest exploitation, emigration). Then, together with local stakeholders, we developed future scenarios for the region through a series of scenario planning workshops. The resulting four scenarios reflect the influence of the most important (and most uncertain) drivers for the future of Southern Transylvania, namely international and national policy settings and the ability of locals to capitalize on opportunities.

Scenario paintings showing possible future conditions in Southern Transylvania

Fig 2: Scenario paintings showing possible future conditions in Southern Transylvania

Readers of this blog might know the scenarios and the pictures (which I painted, see Fig. 2) already from other publications. Based on the scenarios, we then assessed how the current development trends might change under different scenario conditions visualizing both regional trends and internal heterogeneity in development (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Maps of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania

Fig. 3: Maps of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania

Overall, our results highlight that current conditions and trends are strongly influenced by legacies, i.e. past conditions and changes in the system. Further, they show the importance of external drivers (EU and national policy settings) for future developments and finally, how the influence of these external drivers can be amplified or counteracted by internal factors (education, leadership and bridging organizations).

The paper will be part of a special issue in Ecology and Society with the title “Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS): knowledge for sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems”, which is going to come out some time next year, I think.

Enjoy the read!


Full reference:

Hanspach, J., Hartel, T., Milcu, A., Mikulcak, F., Dorresteijn, I., Loos, J., von Wehrden, H., Kuemmerle, T., Abson, D. J., Kovács-Hostyánszki, A., Báldi, A. & Fischer, J. (2014) A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania. Ecology and Society 19(4): 32.

How much survey effort is enough?

New paper by Jacqueline Loos, Jan Hanspach, Henrik von Wehrden, Monica Beldean, Cosmin I. Moga and Joern Fischer: Developing robust field survey protocols in landscape ecology: a case study on birds, plants and butterflies, Biodiversity and Conservation, DOI 10.1007/s10531-014-0786-3.

Alma Vii 14.7 (2)

In order to better understand biodiversity patterns along landscape gradients, powerful data is needed to detect relations to environmental parameters. However, given financial and logistics constraints, ecologists often face a trade-off between the number of sites they can survey and the necessity to repeat surveys in the same site (for example, to cover seasonal variation in species composition). With our recent publication in Biodiversity and Conservation, we present an assessment of the trade-offs between alternative survey strategies for plants, birds and butterflies in Southern Transylvania. This pilot study helped designing surveys on a larger spatial scale, which we conducted as a follow-up.

In this study, we applied different survey techniques, including a so-called “cartwheel approach” for plants, in which we randomly placed ten one square meter plots within a round-shaped one hectare site. In the same sites, we conducted ten-minute point counts for birds and we adapted 200 m Standard Pollard walks for butterflies.

We then reduced the total sampling size for each taxon and investigated whether species richness, species turnover and species composition changed. We correlated the pattern that we achieved from the “full survey effort” with results from randomly “reduced survey effort”.


Correlations between data from reduced survey effort (1 to 9 plots for plants; 1 to 3 repeats for birds and butterflies) and the maximum survey effort (10 plots for plants; 4 repeats for birds and butterflies). Reduced survey effort was simulated by randomly sub-setting the full data set 1,000 times for each level of data reduction.

We also conducted a power analysis, which allowed us to estimate the required number of survey sites to being able to detect landscape effects on species richness. Based on the patterns we observed in the correlations, we concluded that it is possible to reduce survey effort without losing the “bigger picture” of species richness distribution. Overall, this study showed us that in the highly heterogeneous farmland of Southern Transylvanian, at least three temporal replicates on at least 100 study sites were required to find landscape scale effects on diversity patterns of birds and butterflies, while for plants, seven one square meter plots in at least 100 sites showed sufficient power to detect trends.


Power analysis with simulated data. Minimum detectable effect (MDE) is plotted as a function of the number of survey sites. MDE was defined as the absolute change in species richness along the observed heterogeneity gradient in arable fields that could be etected in a linear model with given sample size.

We recommend other landscape ecologist to conduct pilot studies in order to test and adapt different sampling schemes before conducting their main study. By doing so, it is possible to identify the most efficient use of available project resources. With the help of our study, we detected that diversity patterns remained relatively stable within certain thresholds.

The full paper is available here:

New paper: Low-Intensity Agricultural Landscapes in Transylvania Support High Butterfly Diversity: Implications for Conservation

By: Jacqueline Loos, Ine Dorresteijn, Jan Hanspach, Pascal Fust, Laszlo Rakosy and Joern Fischer. Plos One 9(7): e103256.

European farmland biodiversity is declining due to land use changes, often involving agricultural intensification (mainly where the land is flat and easily accessible) or abandonment (mainly in rural areas rich in contours). Some Eastern European farming systems have sustained traditional forms of land use, resulting in high levels of biodiversity. However, under the influence of global markets and international policies, these systems are now subject to rapid and major changes. To effectively protect farmland biodiversity, it is important to understand which landscape features underpin species diversity.



Transylvanian landscape with pasture in the background and arable fields in the center (photo: J. Loos)


In our recently published study, we focused on butterfly diversity patterns in response to landscape variables across a cultural-historic landscape in Southern Transylvania, Romania. In order to follow the notion of a natural experiment, we cross-stratified the landscape according to three categories, two of them representing gradients that are likely to change during a process of land use change- the amount of woody vegetation across the landscape and heterogeneity. We measured heterogeneity by the standard deviation of 2.5 m panchromatic SPOT satellite imagery, which we calculated within one hectare circles across the landscape. The third category represented the protection status, and in SCI, SPA and unprotected sites we made sure to cover an equal amount of study sites.We randomly selected 120 survey sites in farmland, 60 each in grassland and arable land. We applied standard butterfly transects to survey abundance and species richness, and repeated the surveys with a regular distance of three weeks at four occasions during summer 2012. We analysed species composition by Detrended Correspondence Analysis. We modelled total species richness, richness of functional groups, and the abundance of selected individual species in response to topography, woody vegetation cover and heterogeneity at three different spatial scales, using generalised linear mixed effects models. Another step in our survey was to predict distribution patterns of butterfly species richness across the agricultural areas of our study region.

Loos et al. Figure 1

Location of the study area with investigated village catchments in Transylvania, Romania. The small letters indicate the village catchments illustrated for predictions in Figure 4 (a= Cincu, b= Granari, c= Viscri).


In total, we counted 19,878 individuals of 112 species of butterflies. In a nutshell, we found that species richness was widely distributed throughout the entire landscape, which is formed by a mosaic of different land use patches. Surprisingly, we found a wide overlap in species composition in grassland and arable land. The main gradients along which composition changed were heterogeneity at the local and the context scale, woody vegetation cover at context and landscape scales. Furthermore, the species richness in arable land and grassland did not differ significantly. We found a positive effect of local heterogeneity on butterfly species richness in arable land, but a negative effect in grassland. Other variables that explained  patterns of total species richness, richness of functional groups and individual species abundances included plant species richness, but also structural and topographic conditions at multiple scales.

Loos et al. Figure 4

Maps of predicted butterfly distributions in three example villages. Left: Land cover map according to CORINE 2006; middle: predicted species richness for arable and grassland areas within each village catchment; right: predicted abundance of the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina).

Hence, our study revealed high conservation value of both grassland and arable land in extensive Eastern European farmland. Not only grassland, but also extensive, heterogeneous arable land provides important habitat for butterflies. While butterfly diversity in arable land benefits from the heterogeneity provided by small-scale structures, grasslands should be protected from fragmentation to provide sufficiently large areas for butterflies. Conservation management in extensive European farmland systems needs to consider entire landscapes, and implement appropriate measures at multiple spatial scales.

To access the full paper, go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.


Melanargia galathea, the Marbled White – one of the most common butterflies in arable fields in Transylvania (photo: Jószef Szabo)

New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

Andra Ioana Milcu, Kate Sherren, Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Joern Fischer. Land Use Policy (full paper available here or here)

How do locals look at their landscape and what do they want from it? These are two questions we’ve been trying to answer since the start of our research project, and the answers are “differently” and “many things” respectively. These questions are interesting to ask in the context of any cultural landscape, but all the more of those subject to increased and confusing pressures from external drivers. In Southern Transylvania, the global and European socio-economic contexts translate in demanding and often contradicting challenges for the Saxons landscapes. On the one hand, as globalization turns into reality for this region as well, traditional subsistence agriculture loses its economic profitability and agricultural intensification becomes a strong model for development. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the threats and continuous alterations cultural landscapes are facing drives European policy makers to elaborate conservation policies which seek to preserve the valuable ecological subsystems.

Our aim was to understand the various ways in which locals think and feel about the cultural landscape of Southern Transylvania and its future role. In order to do so, we employed the Q methodology, a research method that explores people’s subjectivity by identifying shared ways of thinking about a certain topic by how they sort a set of stimuli related to it. 129 participants from 30 villages were asked to sort 33 landscape photos in a forced normal distribution according to what they would like to see more of in their village or village surroundings. By focusing on the respondent and his own system of reference without using imposed a priori meanings, the Q method becomes friendlier to the subjects, which might explain some of the positive feedback we received from locals.

We would like to acknowledgephoto credits to the following colleagues, contacts and web-sites, who agreed to the photos being used for the purpose ofthis: Silvina Armat, Ana Saftiuc, Sebastian Dan (,, Cristi Darie, Alin Todea,Mariana Cut¸,, Andrei Ostroveanu,, Viorel Iras¸ cu,, and Jacqueline Loos.

Characteristic arrangement of photos for one of the factors

Our findings revealed five ways (viewpoints) in which locals perceived their landscape.

Landscapes for prosperity and economic development (F1)

People sharing this opinion thought that landscapes should be put at the service of development and seemed most determined to adopt any means or technologies in order to achieve modernization and economic growth. Pictures suggesting wild, nature-dominated landscapes, or traditional agricultural practices were rated poorly. These people were willing to accept a trade-off between prosperity, and cultural and natural heritage, that might come with development. F1 included many state officials and individuals in management positions who often administrate or control relatively large areas of land.

Landscapes for traditions and balance (F2)

People sharing this opinion prioritized spiritual values and saw landscapes as a way to maintain their cultural identity and traditions.Their preferences suggested pastoral landscapes in which people interact with the landscape in somewhat idyllic ways. They were seeking this balanced relationship between human intervention and nature while projecting on the landscape their own expectations. Ironically, they idealized traditional agriculture, although many of them practiced agriculture mostly as a hobby, not as a source of income. Paradoxically, they had a strong need for sense of place, although F2 included the largest proportion of foreigners. As these individuals made a conscious choice to escape modernization, their lifestyle became dependent on the conservation of the landscapes and maintaining the cultural identity.

Landscapes for people (F3)

People sharing this opinion feel that landscapes should fulfill basic human needs and provide leisure activities. In contrast with F2, for F3 agriculture was a way of survival and they looked at landscapes with fear but at the same time gratitude being dependent on it for food, water and heat. They also preferred traditional rural landscapes but without being able to identify those precise elements of cultural identity or heritage. Very specific to this factor was the concern for community cohesion and seeing landscapes as a space for celebration and community. They had the highest proportion of relatively poor subsistence farmers and day laborers.

Landscapes for farming (F4)

People sharing this opinion think that landscapes are meant for farming and cultivating land.

But while F1 individuals wanted to explore all development opportunities offered by nature, F4 individuals generally viewed agriculture as their only option for achieving development and well being. This group was the least impressed by the beauty of nature and felt little connection to recreation activities in nature. However, they expressed appreciation for open landscapes and had an aesthetic preference for well-maintained settings that mirror stewardship qualities, and seemed to prefer a mix of new and old farming practices. This group was dominated by medium-large farmers, directly shaping and being dependent on the landscape.

Landscapes for nature (F5)

This is the group of recreation consumers that appreciate a natural landscape for its visual qualities. Preferred settings suggested high appreciation for greenery-dominated landscapes and denoted the least degree of anthropic intervention  in the landscape. F5 displayed less active engagement in the landscape than F2, less dependence on the landscape than F3 and F4, and considerably less power than F1. This group included retired country-dwellers but also commuters and weekend inhabitants.

Fig. 5

Conceptual space diagram illustrating the positioning of factors and associated viewpoints (regarding the landscape) relative to the level of desired modernization and the change agency level of individuals within a given factor relative to the landscape

In keeping with this diversity of opinions and interests, we believe Southern Transylvania would gain from avoiding ecological and economical simplification, as well as the homogenization of landscapes and cultures. Policies that nurture diverse opportunities for development, by providing equal chances for economically viable farming, such as operational markets for niche products stemming from traditionally managed areas, as well as non-agricultural livelihoods such as culture-based tourism) are key for the region. Economic diversity, with its various income opportunities, is dependent on a diverse and rich landscape. Landscape heterogeneity would also mitigate conflicts of identities and values over the landscape, which are recently arising among locals with different visions and values systems.

To read our paper on landscape preferences in Southern Transylvania go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.

New paper: Human-carnivore coexistence in a traditional rural landscape

Ine Dorresteijn, Jan Hanspach, Attila Kecskés, Hana Latková, Zsófia Mezey, Szilárd Sugár, Henrik von Wehrden, Joern Fischer. Landscape ecology

Many carnivore populations persist outside national parks and facilitating coexistence between humans and carnivores is a socially desired goal and a major conservation challenge. Nevertheless, despite increased conservation efforts many carnivore populations continue to decline, often due to conflicts with humans. Thus, a key to successful carnivore conservation is to better understand human-carnivore coexistence dynamics. To this end, a useful approach could be to learn from landscapes in which humans and carnivores have coexisted for long periods of time.

In Eastern Europe, large carnivores and humans have co-inhabited multiple-use landscapes for centuries. This is in stark contrast with Western Europe where hunting has extirpated carnivores from most of their former range. Furthermore, the recent comeback of carnivores in Western Europe faces strong opposition from local people. To gain a better understanding on human-carnivore coexistence, we aimed to assess how humans and bears coexist in southern Transylvania, Romania. Romania sustains a large stable population of the brown bear, most of which live in the Carpathian mountains. However, they also occur in the foothills which harbor hundreds of villages characterized by semi-subsistence agriculture.

We used a two-pronged approach combining ecological and social data to study coexistence between humans and the brown bear in Transylvania. We first surveyed 550 km of walking transects for bear signs (proportion of destroyed anthills) to assess spatial patterns of bear activity. Second, we used questionnaires to examine human-bear conflicts in the region and related it to the spatial distribution of bear activity.

We found that humans and bears coexist relatively peacefully despite occasional conflicts. Coexistence appeared to be facilitated by (1) the availability of large forest blocks that are connected to the source population of bears in the Carpathian Mountains; (2) the use of traditional livestock management to minimize damage from bears; and (3) some tolerance among shepherds to occasional conflict with bears. In contrast, coexistence was not facilitated by avoidance of human settlements by bears and financial incentives.


Predicted bear activity in the study area (left) and attitudes towards bears of shepherds experiencing different rates of livestock attacks by bears (right).

We show that human-bear coexistence is possible even without direct financial incentives. Continuous coexistence with large carnivores appears to foster the development of management tools and attitudes that effectively reduce conflicts. Nevertheless, this shared history of relationships between humans and bears has been eroded in many regions worldwide. Thus, a key challenge for settings with a broken history of human-carnivore co-occurrence is to reinstate both practices and attitudes that facilitate coexistence.
The full paper can be downloaded here.

Communicating research results in Transylvania II

By Joern Fischer

As I threatened in the last blog post, here is a bit more information on our outreach tour through Central Romania. We’ve got quite a bit of it behind us now, and so it’s possible to reflect a little bit on the outcomes. First, here’s another short video, taken by Hans Hedrich, a local environmental activist and documentary maker. And below that I’ll reflect a bit on our outreach tour.

Here are some of my main reflections:

  • The time investment was substantial, but absolutely worth it. We had to prepare 15 posters, in two languages we don’t all speak, we wrote a booklet, we had to come up with a schedule, hire a van, organise pavillions, get permissions from local mayors …. all of this took a lot of time and energy. I would not recommend for any individual person to ever organise this kind of thing, but we shared the organisation among several different people, and this made it quite manageable. Regarding it being worth it: First, it was very much “team building”, with benefits for our research team as such. Second, there were quite a few villagers who seemed to genuinely appreciate people coming to study their landscapes. So it is not only “right” to give something back to the communities we did our research in, but it has actually been quite satisfying, with some people genuinely interested and feeling they could somehow “use” our results in their lives and roles.
  • Our Romanian colleagues were fantastic! We involved several locals in our outreach tour, and they did a wonderful job talking to anyone and everyone — from a TV station to the elderly, from priests to kindergarden kids. Thanks again to you guys!
  • Our biggest outreach “success” was in places that one may not have thought. I found it very interesting to observe where our work inspired enthusiasm — where the scenarios really made people think — versus where it was received in a rather luke warm way. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the actors supposedly most interested in sustainable development in the region did not seem overly interested in our findings, nor moved by our communication approach; while some “random” people (such as nascent leaders in local communities) were very enthusiastic and inspired. This goes to show, I think, that just sticking with the “official” important actors misses a lot of second-row change agents, who may not be the frontline of sustainable development, but who might be quite important in specific places or neighbourhoods.
  • We need more of this! While we can’t tour our study area forever, we hope that those locals interested in engaging will continue to discuss the future of Transylvania. To help with this, we have a (fairly active) facebook page (mostly in Romanian, and thanks to my PhD students convincing me we needed one), and a website with all our materials, from scientific papers to posters and presentations.

Communicating research results in Transylvania

By Joern Fischer

I hope we’ll have a couple more posts on our outreach tour that we’re currently on! But here’s a short post for a start. We’re touring Transylvania with a travelling poster exhibition at the moment (English and Romanian versions are here), visiting 18 villages, a bunch of town halls, NGOs, and so on. We’re distributing a range of our research findings, including our booklet on scenarios for the future of Transylvania. The short movie below summarises some of the main things we’re doing. More soon …!

Care for little, Loss of less? (Or: a comparison between a British nature reserve and a typical Romanian landscape)

(by Jacqueline Loos and Laurie Jackson)

Having once been to Romania, perception of species richness gets spoiled. We realized this yesterday, when we went out on a bird walk with Michael Blencowe from Sussex Wildlife Trust – a local non-governmental organization into a lovely nature reserve Grazing traditional cattle and sheep breeds keep the grassland free of scrub, skylarks and stonechats breed in this area and wheatears stop here on their migration route. The people on this walk enjoyed seeing the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone, Orange tip and Small White butterflies passing by, observed toadpoles in ancient dews, and buzzards and raves wheeling overhead. The grassland was said to comprise up to 40 plant species per square metre. That was all very nice.


In the UK, chalk grassland is recognised  as one of the most species-diverse habitats – even though a site such as Southerham would represent a rather poor landscape by Romanian standards. When we see buzzards in Romania, we often say: “Oh that is JUST a buzzard”. Peacocks are “everywhere” and skylarks are “only skylarks”. And “rich” in Romania” means 60 or more species per square metre… Of course, climate conditions are different, land use history is different, so the comparison might not be fair. However, what struck me is that people in Western Europe are spending millions on restoring habitats, are re-seeding wild flowers, protecting a few hecatres from being further destroyed- whereas in Romania, this is all still for free!


In the UK there are people that care passionately about the natural environment and will willingly give up their time to volunteer and record species as you note. BUT there are lots of people who are growingly disconnected from the environment – and when coming from England – this is the saddest thing about travelling to Romania – seeing the inhabitants of a country strongly entwined with its natural environment, but at the same time this connection is fading away. Perhaps this is reminiscent of how the UK and other Western European countries would have been only decades ago. Let´s hope the mistakes that have been done in Western Europe can be avoided in other places!

Scenario planning: communicating results to a broad audience

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, we conducted a scenario planning analysis in Southern Transylvania, Romania. Scenario planning is suitable where uncertainty about the future is high, and where things cannot be easily controlled. We worked with a wide range of regional organizations and a number of individual experts to construct four alternative scenarios describing possible futures for Southern Transylvania. Our goal was to assess a wide range of possible changes that might take place. We summarized the scenarios describing alternative future development paths. Our scenarios are short stories of what the future might be like, and they are based on a “systems understanding” of how one change causes another, which in turn may cause yet another change, and so on.

Our goal was for those scenarios to help stimulate new thinking about the future in the region. But how can this be done in practice — in a location where civic engagement is traditionally low, and government is not necessarily interested in sustainability issues?

As one of our outreach tools, we produced a small booklet — about 60 pages long — and that booklet has just been published online. It is an open access publication, so you are free to distribute it as you like.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 13.26.14

Key features of our booklet are:

  • We use simple, accessible language throughout the booklet, and avoid all academic language — in Romanian and Hungarian (both are important local languages).
  • We use “narratives” of alternative futures, as well as fictional accounts of people living in the future — who describe how they experience a given future.
  • We use original artwork (by Jan Hanspach) to illustrate the scenarios.
  • We have included quotes from interviews in the region to illustrate aspects of the scenarios that are already taking place throughout the book.
  • As next steps, we will distribute this booklet in Transylvania (in May), and we are planning poster exhibitions and flyers, too.
  • We are contemplating constructing a second version, in German/English, which would be of “academic” use, too.
Back of our booklet (click to enlarge), showing the status quo landscape and four alternative futures

Back of our booklet (click to enlarge), showing the status quo landscape and four alternative futures


The entire booklet is available for download and distribution at Pensoft.