A pragmatic kind of transdisciplinarity

Hooray for social awkwardness

Happy new year! Today we have a guest post by Kate Sherren, a friend and colleague of mine from Dalhousie University, Canada. Together with Jan Hanspach, we just published a new paper on inter- and transdisciplinary research for sustainability — available from Basic and Applied Ecology or a pre-final version here. Our paper covers insights from our projects in Australia (which Kate discusses below), but also from Romania.

Joern Fischer and I met in a large, interdisciplinary environmental research school at the Australian National University. I was doing social science, and Joern, ecology. Even with an integrative institutional culture, the odds were not favourable that we would end up collaborating. My desk was awkwardly placed in relation to his, however, forcing first greetings, then pleasantries, and finally a discovery of common interests and complementary skills. He was already engaged in understanding how grazing practices affected tree regeneration in Southeastern Australia, where scattered tree cover was declining. He bemoaned the ‘shifting baselines’ phenomenon that meant the tree cover loss was not front-of-mind for the farmers or the public. I showed him ‘virtual reality’ animations of forestry scenarios from my time working in sustainable forestry research in Northern British Columbia, which we used for stakeholder and public engagement. In a matter of weeks, we wrote, along with Prof Stephen Dovers, a grant application to add social and economic elements – including landscape visualisations – to his ecological work, and were lucky to fall within the 3% of applications funded that year.

three circles

A pragmatic research design allowed us a healthy mix of disciplinary rigour, interdisciplinary synthesis, and transdisciplinary engagement. Each disciplinary sphere was autonomous, with minimal dependencies on others. It was implied that each of these needed the rigour appropriate to seek peer review in the appropriate disciplinary outlets. Meanwhile, we carefully identified areas of overlap for synergistic collaboration: visualising the impacts of various grazing practices on tree cover, as determined by the ecological research; determining farm-gate costs for the transition to preferred planting or grazing practices; and, understanding how farmers perceive all of the above. We used the same landscape (place), farmers/farms (cases) and processes (e.g. stakeholder workshops, survey instruments) as opportunities for efficiencies and building understanding across the spheres. The work had impact in policy, legislation, on farms, and in local schools. It turned out to be a solid model for applied interdisciplinary work in coupled social-ecological systems, as well as one lacking the career risks sometimes associated with interdisciplinary work.

A recent paper in Basic and Applied Ecology sets out the model for other ecologists who feel that insights into the socio-economic domain will give traction to scientifically derived ‘answers’ to conservation or sustainability problems. Joern used the model to structure his Sofia Kovalevskaya-funded project on post-EU agricultural transitions in Romania, where he works with Jan Hanspach, co-author on this paper and collaborator in Australia as well. I have similarly sought collaborations with ecologists here in Nova Scotia to examine wetland restoration on farms. There is plenty of literature that lays out more utopian forms of transdisciplinary knowledge building and exchange, but these can be difficult to tackle with short project horizons and pre-established deliverables, and may involve some individual risks for disciplinary status. Our approach to transdisciplinarity is pragmatic, but effective and broadly transferrable.

Sheepdogs in Romania: blessing or curse?

By Ine Dorresteijn

When I first came to Lueneburg, I was warned by my colleagues to be careful with aggressive sheep dogs while doing fieldwork in Romania. My first reaction was, Yeah yeah you are overreacting, I grew up with dogs and I am not afraid of them and probably will not be in Romania either. Well my view on sheepdogs changed the first time I met them, and since that moment they do scare me. In fact when we see sheep in the distance, which can be several hundred meters away, we already start plotting how to get to our site and at the same time avoid running into the dogs.


C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie
C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie
 Sheepdogs are traditionally used in Romania to guard sheep against the attacks of bears and wolves. The landscape has still extensive forest that harbors bears and wolves despite the fact that the landscape is scattered with villages. Transylvania is one of the few regions in Europe where large carnivores and humans share the same landscape, and this can and does lead to conflicts from time to time. Keeping dogs to guard your sheep is the most effective way to prevent livestock depredation, and the majority of shepherds we interviewed indeed mentioned dogs as the key to keep sheep depredation low. Thus, dogs are a valuable asset to Romanian shepherd life and shepherds are willing to invest in dogs – one shepherd told me he had just bought two puppies of 300 euro each. Of course I encourage keeping this tradition alive and I have a lot of respect for the Romanian community of still being able to coexist with large carnivores without major conflicts (at least in our study region). Nevertheless, being surrounded by 10 angry dogs, frantically trying to keep a stick length between you and the dogs, while desperately hoping the shepherd will intervene and safe you from this situation does make me wonder whether Romanian sheep dogs are a blessing or a curse.
 A 11-month puppy (the larger dog) of C. l. familiaris barkius, currently not in action, with the son of the shepherd

A 11-month puppy (the larger dog) of C. l. familiaris barkius, currently not in action, with the son of the shepherd

To give you a better understanding on the different types of sheepdogs we encounter we started categorizing the dogs in the field. Among many, we created 4 new main subspecies of Canis lupus familiaris and classified them by the IUCN Red List as we saw fit: Canis lupus familiaris barkius (least concern), C. l. familiaris non-barkius (endangered), C. l. familiaris on roadius (least concern), and C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie (critically endangered). As you can see barking dogs are still very common. Now this can be a good thing as barking dogs don’t bite right. On the other hand it is quite a frightening sound when there are many dogs barking and they show their big teeth and give you the vibe that all they want to do is eat you. The on roadius type is a special character on its own, although maybe a little suicidal. In brief, they wait for you on the road and than they attack the car with the determination as if the car is a big monster that has to be eliminated (see video). Luckily, the car protects us against the dogs but the fear still exists that you might hit a dog and have to explain it to the shepherd. Or, just imagine you are making a nice bike-ride instead, that would change the feeling of encountering C. l. familiaris on roadius. On the positive side, the best dogs to encounter are the one of the pookie-pookie type. Basically they look big and angry when you meet them at first but than talking to them in a soft voice and calling them pookie-pookie changes the dog’s entire behavior (see picture). Suddenly he remembers he is also just a dog and starts wiggling the tail, rolling around and begging with big eyes to be petted. After some playing time and being covered in dog slobber you can happily move on without any further problems. These are really the best dog moments but unfortunately most of the time the dogs did not respond to pookie-pookie but rather to some harsh yelling and waving of the stick.

Now back to the question whether these dogs are a blessing or a curse, and what does this mean for biodiversity in the region. There is no doubt that they protect sheep from carnivores, which in turn might protect carnivores at the same time, as it is a way for shepherds to coexist with carnivores. On the other hand, hunters have complained that dogs hunt in the forests on deer, which could have negative impacts on their populations. This problem however could be mitigated by feeding dogs enough good quality food and train them to stay with the sheep or at the sheep camp. A second problem could arise that the presence of sheep dogs could hamper development strategies such as eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is often suggested as a sustainable viable option for rural development. Sheepdogs like barkius and on roadius, however, make hiking, biking, or outdoor activities difficult or an unpleasant experience for tourists. Instead biodiversity might benefit from low tourism as certain development, like the replacement of dirt roads into gravel/asphalt roads could reduce important habitat for (threatened) amphibians. Thus, whether dogs are more guardians of biodiversity or a threat to biodiversity to me is still an open question.

Overall, I still think that dogs in Romania are still a blessing although we should minimize the chances of them becoming a curse. For this to happen it will be necessary to find pro-active conservation strategies to maintain and increase the population of well-fed critically endangered C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie!

Hay: ho!

Romania’s hay meadows belong to the world’s hotspots of species richness (Wilson et al. 2012).  Their flower densities, the amount of butterflies, crickets and grasshoppers are stunning when you visit these places. Most of these hay meadows are listed in Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive. Therefore, Romania has a duty under EU law to protect its 1.5 million hectares of semi-natural hay meadows (Paulini et al. 2013). However, many hay meadows these days are under threat from globalization by land use change, including the decline of dairy farming and land abandonment, because young people increasingly move away from rural areas (Knowles 2011). Therefore, trees and shrubs invade the meadows, and a loss of species richness is the long-term consequence (Baur et al. 2006).   

I just joined an international hay making festival that the farmer Áttila Sarig and his family organized in the mountains of Ghimes, Romania. “Many people talk about nature conservation – we farmers practice it with our every-day activities.” The idea of this festival, supported by the Págony Havasc association and Barbara Knowles, was to promote local traditions and to support smallholder farmers in their sustainable way of living.

During this week, I learnt about the self-sustaining farming practices of farmers in the mountains. Attila Sarig and his family have 4 cows, for which they need hay in winter. These cows provide enough milk for the family, which produces its own cheese from the raw milk using its own rennet. Attila and his family use as little technology as possible, and therefore they produce most of their products by hand, and cut the hay by hand using scythes. During the festival, we also watched the production of traditional tools such as handles and rakes – completely without using electricity. Victor Baci, the local toolmaker said: “If I used electricity, I will have to pay the bill. Therefore, I will need to produce more rakes and sell them for higher prices. In the end, I will earn the same, so I’d rather do it the way I have done it for 60 years.” This, to me, sounds truly sustainable. 

Victor Baci

Victor Baci


Willy Schuster, the “Michael Jackson of organic farmers in Romania”, is convinced that low intensity farming and manual work is the farming of the future – because resources are limited and because we head for sustainable lifestyles.

This festival and Willy Schuster’s organic farm in Mosna are very interesting elements of a movement of farmers in Romania that aims to preserve the high nature value farming practices that support high biodiversity. And it is a lot of work! After one day of helping out and several blisters on our hands, we had managed to cut 0.8 ha with the help of 15 people. This amount would be enough to feed half a cow through the winter. We took another half a day to gather the hay (with the handmade wooden rakes) and to produce four nice hay stacks, carefully arranged on a nest of branches. On these branches, the stacks could be transported to the barn with the help of a horse.


Volunteers cutting hay in Aldómas valley


Áttila Sarig has a lot more ideas how to promote and support the self-sustaining lifestyle of farmers: He is planning an education center in his village, Aldomas, and is in exchange with farmers throughout Europe to learn and teach techniques for low-intensity farming and cheese-making. In my opinion, this movement is important to offer farmers a perspective to remain independent from large companies and allow their own ways of trading and accessing local products. If you want to read more about this, see this nice article in National geographic http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/transylvania-hay/nicolson-text, or visit http://mountainhaymeadows.eu/ and Barbara Knowles’ website: https://sites.google.com/site/barbaraknowlesproject/.



Baur B, et al. (2006) Effects of abandonment of subalpine hay meadows on plant and invertebrate diversity in Transylvania, Romania. Biol Conserv 132(2):261-273.

Knowles B (2011) Mountain Hay Meadows: the Romanian Context and the Effects of Policy on High Nature Value Farming in Mountain hay meadows – hotspots of biodiversity and traditional culture, ed Knowles B (Society of Biology, London, Boros Valley, Transylvania, Romania).

Paulini I, et al. (2013) The hay meadows in the SCI „Eastern Hills of Cluj”
(Romania): Data about mowing and abandonment. Abstract of oral presentation at conference “Mountain hay meadows – economic, social and environmental value”, available: http://mountainhaymeadows.eu/files/conference_2013/Day_1/abstract%2007%20Inge%20Paulini%20EN.pdf

Wilson JB, Peet RK, Dengler J, & Partel M (2012) Plant species richness: the world records. J Veg Sci 23(4):796-802.

Assessing ecosystem services in Central Romania

By Joern Fischer

Jan Hanspach recently presented some of our research findings in Romania at the Hungarian Academy of Science in Budapest, at a workshop entitled “Ecosystem functioning & valuation web services and workflows”. All talks are available at this (external) website. Jan’s talk is also available here for those interested in our work in Romania specifically (apologies that the audio quality is not always perfect).

Butterfly monitoring in Romania

By Joern Fischer

Jacqueline Loos from Leuphana University Lueneburg and Paul Kirkland from Butterfly Conservation (UK) are heading an interesting initiative to encourage butterfly monitoring in the UK. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have quite elaborate monitoring schemes — but their butterfly diversity is a lot lower than that of Romania! The poster below summarises Jacqueline’s and Paul’s work (click to magnify).

This poster will be presented at the XVIIIth European Congress of Lepidopterology in Bulgaria Blagoevgrad, which will take place from 29 July-4 August 2013.

SEL 2013 Poster final version-page-001(1)

New paper: woodpeckers in Southern Transylvania, Romania

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to highlight a new paper by Ine Dorresteijn and others, based on our work in Romania. A while back, Ine reported from the field on her work on woodpeckers. As time has passed, this work is now written up and published in PLoS One.

Middle-spotted woodpecker

The paper compared the richness and composition of woodpeckers between forests and wood pastures in Southern Transylvania. The study area is unusual in that six species were common enough to be analysed, including several listed as threatened in Annex I of the EU’s Birds Directive — namely the black woodpecker, the middle-spotted woodpecker, and the grey-headed woodpecker.

In a nutshell, we found that the entire landscape was still used by most of the species. Some, however, appeared to prefer wood pastures (with their old trees) whereas others preferred forest patches. These differences, in turn, could be largely explained by the ecology of the individual species.

Other ecological work in Romania is (of course!) ongoing — including on passerines, the corncrake, and many other aspects of biodiversity (plants, butterflies, large mammals). Check in again for updates on those ones!

To read the paper on woodpeckers, go here.

Biodiversity in Central Romania: pictures from the camera traps

By Ine Dorresteijn

The previous discussion on our blog was about where to target conservation efforts in Romania. Biodiversity is amazing in Eastern Europe; however, it seems hard to prioritize certain places for conservation efforts because species appear to be everywhere. Indeed species seem appear to be everywhere, and with this blog-post I would just like to show you a bit more about the biodiversity in Transylvania.

Just as an example, a few days ago we saw a bear, deer, blindworm, different species of lizards, grass snakes, different frogs and toads, and of course many species of butterflies and beetles. Doing fieldwork in this region is very rewarding and we see many different species every day.

Photo by Marlene Roellig

Photo by Marlene Roellig

I consider myself lucky as I get to discover the main land uses of the region. Last year I mainly did my fieldwork on the pastures, meadows and arable fields, whereas this year I get to spend most of my time in the forests. Besides the fact that the forests are very beautiful with many mature trees, it is also exciting as there is always the chance to encounter a carnivore! Therefore, the feeling I have by walking through a Romanian forest is totally different compared to a German or Dutch forest.

This year we are using camera traps in the forests to survey mammal distribution. We are mainly interested in the importance of large carnivores (wolves and bears) on the ecosystem. Last week we got the pictures back from the first 30 sites. Just from those 30 sites alone we got around 850 pictures with identifiable animals on them. Unfortunately we did not yet get any wolves, but we did get pictures of 21 individual bears spread across 14 sites. Besides bears we also got pictures of roe and red deer, red fox, stone marten, wild boar, badger, rodents, domesticated animals and wild cats! I am especially excited about the wild cats as they do not seem to be rare in this region at all. We have pictures of 23 cats in 12 sites. In comparison, in the Netherlands it was big news last month when they observed the first wild cat (on camera traps) after centuries of its absence. We have now set out cameras for the next 30 sites, and I am very excited about the next things we will discover on our traps. Below are a few pictures from the Transylvanian forests.

M2E47L161-162R410B315 M2E34L104-104R398B309 M2E1L0-0R350B300 M2E1L0-0R350B300 M2E35L108-108R398B306

Where to target conservation efforts in Central Romania?

By Joern Fischer

A major branch in conservation biology deals with the question of where to put conservation efforts. No matter what kind of spatial prioritisation one undertakes (formal or informal) — ultimately some places get more conservation attention than others. In Central Romania, we find there is a large set of connected Natura 2000 sites. But despite formal protection, it should be clear that not all locations (even within the “proctected areas”) will be receive equal treatment. So, some kind of prioritisation will take place, whether we like it or not. Will hay meadows get a lot of attention? Or forests? Or communally managed pastures? (Of course it would be good to create a somewhat holistic vision for the region; my point is simply that conservation happens in some places more than others, no matter what we do.)

With respect to the question of “where to put one’s efforts”, Central Romania has puzzled me a few times. There is a strange problem with respect to spatial prioritisation here … it’s simply not obvious where is most important! For example, we hear the corncrake in many places. It’s a rare species in Western Europe but seems to be just about everywhere in Central Romania.

The corncrake … quite common in Central Romania

And the corncrake isn’t the only species. The yellow-bellied toad is also everywhere (well, just about) according to a recent paper, we see rare butterflies everywhere (so it seems), and bear encounters are quite common, too. With a situation like that, how do we prioritise? How can Eastern Europe use some kind of foresight planning to avoid repeating the mistakes that Western Europe made long ago?

Are our (conceptual, statistical, or mental) models too poor, and in fact, species are not “everywhere”? Can (or should) we simply assume that the kinds of places that are now core habitat for species in Western Europe (where they have already declined) will be the most important? Where are the most important places for species which currently appear to be everywhere? Or is this a threshold phenomenon, where right now, everything is everywhere, and then it will — quite suddenly — become fragmented and there will be sudden major declines of multiple species? If that’s the case, where will the most important patches for a given species be in the future?

I’m not really sure, but somehow we have to get a grip of this, so that Eastern Europe won’t just follow Western Europe in terms of major biodiversity declines caused by haphazard development. The question of “where” is something that I have found puzzling for a while when moving around our study area in Romania… if you have any thoughts, you’re welcome to share them.