Interviewing people: my research experience

My field experience interviewing people relates best to my field work from last summer in 30 villages of Romania. There are many books on this subject and the way it is done depends on what your study aims at, the type of questions you want to ask, the intended methodology, etc. In my case it was about ranking photos – illustrating different aspect of the landscapes in the villages from Southern Transylvania – according to what people would like to see more of/less of in the future. The ranking was done in a forced normal distribution, according to the Q methodology, in order to find out how and what people appreciate in their landscape. Going through my interviews, I completed a list of things I learned, things to avoid, feed-backs and general recommendation. Supposedly some might be useful to anyone who tries interviewing rural population in Eastern Europe.

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Self-pieces of advice:

  1. Who surveys who? Even when playing the interviewer, interviews are a way of self-introspection all the more when applying an exploratory technique, grounded theory driven, such as the Q method. “By methodologically acknowledging and in fact incorporating the discursive nature of human subject study, Q challenges the researcher by encounter (Robbins and Krueger, 2000)”.
  2. Introduce who you are. Who are you and where do you come from. This might sound especially challenging for the ones who are on a perpetual self-discovering journey, but useful nonetheless. I tried to focus on my identity as a researcher. This might not be enough as I was often asked personal questions during my interviews to which I responded shortly but gladly.
  3. Introduce what you do, especially why you are doing it. Why are you there? Try not to settle for something like “I have to gather data for my PhD” although this is part of the answer. Try to explain that you’re a researcher doing field research although you may lose credibility when explaining that you earn your income by reading and writing. It is always a good idea to have a flyer presenting the project you are currently working on.
  4. If they ask for clarifications, try to be as clear as possible. Don’t get bored. At some point I realized I was not communicating the task they had to fulfil properly and I still wonder how they managed to do it right.
  5. Don’t pretend you know too much. Don’t make the interview seem too official. Of course that it depends on whom you are talking to, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
  6. Clarification questions are often necessary. Use people’s words in clarification questions and avoid misleading them: What do you mean by “…”?, “What does “…” mean to you?”
  7. Respect the time limit you set at the beginning of the interview. If you say that it will only take 20 minutes make sure you ask the most important things within the first 20 minutes. I felt quite guilty when I took too much of my respondents’ time. You may ask at the end of your 20 min. if they would like to continue with some more questions. I noticed that generally they seem more willing to discuss at the end than at the beginning of an interview.
  8. I also liked, where possible, to go by train or local buses or any public means of transport. You already get into the atmosphere and you can think of your interviews on the way.
  9. Be sure you do not agitate your papers, camera and other stuff in front of the recorder. It may seem obvious but it’s not.
  10. Don’t take pictures of people without asking their permission and don’t do it just because they look funny or strange.
  11. Take notes even when you are recording because it helps you remember and understand better what people are saying. Plus it makes people feel what they are saying counts.
  12. If you have ideas for your future codes or nodes (possible emerging themes) write them quickly or record yourself. You will be grateful to yourself afterwards. I recently read that in qualitative research, the analysis starts in the field (Gibbs, 2007).
  13. When a person is not very talkative ask yourself what you can do to help him/her. Start by asking that person to talk about themselves and gradually build towards the subject of interest. I noticed that people in Southern Transylvania find it easy to talk about their main occupation, their life “history”, rather than give their opinion about something. Accept silence as an answer.
  14. Let them lead you. If they want to find out about yourself or give you a tour of their household for example… or show you their new born calf, be happy about it. If the 5 (!) boys of the family you are talking to, want to play some sort of basketball with you and then make a gym competition involving high jumps and semi acrobatic elements and you’re not so sure about the whole thing, you have the right to say no.
  15. You can admire their domestic animals, the general state of their household or their knowledge about a certain topic (if you feel it is true).
  16. There’s a balance between the pleasure of the discussion and the information you want to get from the interviewees.
  17. Enjoy your interviews even when they don’t provide you with any precious information.
  18. Turn off the recorder at some point and enjoy the conversation. Maybe you will not remember the information but you will be left with a strong impression.
  19. Give children candies or Rubik’s cubes if the budget allows. Especially if you’re going into people’s houses be prepared to be beleaguered (laughed at, threw objects at) by children. Something to keep them occupied will always come in handy.
  20. When confronted with situations such as marriage proposals (quite normal within Rroma communities) it is recommended to ignore everything and focus on your questions and getting the answers.  Finding a vanishing point on the horizon line and avoiding eye contact will increase your chances.
  21. When offered food or juice, proceed as your stomach dictates. It’s always good to be sincere.  I tasted cheese, butter, drank innumerous glasses of “socata” (traditional Romanian soft drink made from the flowers of the European Sambucus nigra), ate homemade bread, cakes, etc, etc.
  22. When offered packed food in packages that you are sure will not last more than 5 minutes in one piece do not refuse them just because of that. The wonderful smell invading your rucksack will make you feel you are one of them. Cheese has a powerful smell; honey is sticky (empirically demonstrated). You can say no if you really think you will not like it.
  23. If you unexpectedly enter a room full of 20 men, (Rroma or not) and the door closes behind you with that decisive slamming door effect, don’t start imagining the worst scenarios possible. Keep calm and ask your questions to one of the guys, usually the one who actually wears a shirt (valid from May to September). Adopting a block start position is found not to help although on the spur of the moment you may judge yourself capable of breaking a new world record for 100 m flat.
  24. Remember that they are helping you; you’re not helping them per se, although that is one of your final/side aims.
  25. My main achievement: generally everybody felt well during my interviews and many told me to come back when I can. “Come as a researcher, leave as a friend”.

It is said that you need to make your respondent feel conformable. I don’t know about them, but I felt comfortable enough, and this too has something to do with the success of an interview. Every day I got back from field happier and more filled with positive energy than on the out journey.  Maybe with the exception of that day in Alexandrita where I had to wait 4 hours until I found someone speaking Romanian or when the biggest fly (of my life) went straight down my throat in Crit, or that time when I missed the bus in Agarbiciu and school kids were making fun of me. Still, interviewing people in the villages of Southern Transylvania was one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

Gibbs R. G., 2007. Analysing qualitative data.

Robbins P., Krueger R., 2010. Beyond Bias? The Promise and Limits of Q Method in Human Geography, The Professional Geographer, 52:4, 636-648.

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Integrating rural development and biodiversity conservation in Central Romania

By Friederike Mikulcak

Compared to most other countries of the European Union, Southern Transylvania (Central Romania) is characterized by an exceptionally high level of farmland biodiversity. This results from small-scale, low-intensity land management practices that have maintained extensive areas of high nature value (HNV) farmland.

Following the post-socialist transition, Southern Transylvania faces serious challenges such as high unemployment rates and ageing of the rural population, which put traditional farming at risk. With Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007, Southern Transylvania became part of a complex multi-level governance system that in principle provides mechanisms to balance biodiversity conservation and rural development. To this end, the most important instruments are the ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected areas and EU rural development policy.

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Is traditional farming going to die out soon in Central Romania?

In November 2011, we conducted semi-structured interviews with town hall representatives from 30 villages in Southern Transylvania and local EU experts (government officials and members of non-profit organizations). Our research revealed that Romania’s accession to the EU has provided both threats and opportunities for farmland biodiversity conservation in Southern Transylvania. According to mayors and local experts, the implementation of EU rural development policy is heavily biased towards economic development, with relatively little explicit acknowledgement of the interdependencies between economic, social and environmental development. Agricultural intensification appears likely at the moment because it is widely seen as desirable by government officials. Moreover, relevant EU funding opportunities are poorly communicated. Although a large part of our study area is located within a Natura 2000 site, the status as a ‘protected area’ is very unlikely to effectively safeguard biodiversity.

How EU rural development policy and its implementation on the local level develop in the future will, to a large extent, shape the type, scale and intensity of farming, and consequently the trajectory of the region’s farmland biodiversity. To tackle the existing implementation deficit of EU policy, a comprehensive approach to rural development is needed that supports both the ecological and social infrastructure of the study area. At the EU level, future policies may need to be more flexibly designed to account for the particular challenges of semi-subsistence areas such as Southern Transylvania. At the national and county levels, administrative capacities and information flows need to be improved to foster the cooperation and knowledge transfer between agricultural funding agencies and local communes. Finally, within communes, community cohesion needs to improve. Active bridging organizations are likely to play a key role in assisting the harmonization of local needs and EU policy.

A key concern is that biodiversity is not forgotten in the process. Existing incentives provided by EU rural development policy will favor agricultural intensification, despite its likely ecological costs. Under a scenario of only minor changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its implementation post 2013, the EU is well on the way to (once again) miss its goal of halting farmland biodiversity decline.

Our article has just been published and can be viewed here: http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A88pWCmM

Understanding and Managing Change in Human-Shaped Environments

Guest post by Tobias Plieninger and Claudia Bieling

(Note by Joern: This post was published a few days ago on the Landscapes Blog. With permission of the authors, we’re re-posting it here, too.)

The Landscape for People, Food and Nature Initiative fosters the integrated management of agricultural landscapes throughout the world. This is in line with parallel efforts (such as the European Landscape Convention) that emphasize that landscapes are a crucial component for the quality of life of local people and therefore require comprehensive protection, management and planning. However, many agricultural landscapes that have historically supported food production, nature conservation, and human livelihoods in ingenious and synergetic ways are rapidly disappearing. In the course of widespread agricultural industrialization, urbanization, and land abandonment, simplified and standardized land use practices are increasingly displacing traditional integrated systems such as extensively used mountain grasslands in the Black Forest of Germany, the traditional hay meadows of the Saxon region in Central Romania, and the dehesa agroforestry landscapes on the Iberian Peninsula. By this, we are not only losing quality of life for local people, but also traditional and localized ecological knowledge that may be needed for the upscaling of integrated landscape management.

Agricultural landscapes are shaped by closely intertwined natural and human processes: a migrant shepherd crossing croplands in Rada de Haro, Central Spain.

An international group of scholars coordinated through the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Germany) and the University of Freiburg (Germany) undertook a three-year effort to understand change of traditional agricultural landscapes through the lens of social-ecological resilience, an analytical approach that promises to systematically guide natural resources management under conditions of global environmental change. Drawing on numerous landscape-scale case studies from Europe, but also Africa, Australia and Latin America, they composed a recently published volume titled “Resilience and the Cultural Landscape: Understanding and Managing Change in Human-Shaped Environments”. It raises questions such as: How are traditional land use practices interrelated with resilience? How can low-input land use support adaptation to conditions of continuous and rapid change? How do collective efforts of social networks contribute to an integrated management of landscapes? By conceptualizing landscapes as social-ecological systems, the team shed light on critical landscape properties and components such as drivers of change, adaptive cycles, regime shifts, ecosystem stewardship and collaboration, coupling of social and ecological systems, and social capital.

The group argues that previous landscape conservation efforts, particularly in Europe, have focused too much on static, isolated, and single sector strategies (mainly motivated by preservation of biodiversity and scenery). Emphasis on resilience and adaptation is essential for guiding integrated agricultural landscapes through current conditions of rapid environmental and societal change. Such resilience-based approach may help re-direct the decline of traditional agricultural landscapes into creative pathways and reveal ways in which functions fulfilled by “traditional” landscape elements may be integrated into “modern” land-use systems, for example into emerging energy cropping systems.

For further information on the book, click here.

Photo credit: Berta Martín López

Yield gaps revisited

By Joern Fischer

Yet again, there’s a new paper on yield gaps, and yet again, I can’t help myself but comment on it. Mueller et al.  have published another global analysis in Nature looking at yield gaps arising from nutrient and water management around the world.

Unless I misunderstand their findings, the bottom line with respect to Eastern Europe is:

– there are major yield gaps for wheat especially (and a bit for maize)

– those could be closed through increasing nutrient inputs, e.g. in Central Romania, increasing them by about 75 kg of nitrogen per ha (per year, presumably — the the figure above).

What does that mean? Frankly, I’m not sure and that’s why I’m writing this blog entry. I’d be really happy for people to comment! Would 75 kg of N per ha be detrimental to biodiversity or not?

A few additional questions I would pose for Central Romania in particular:

Who would benefit from intensification? All locals or just a few (those able to afford inputs)? What would intensification mean for social justice?

And how will the food get from Central Romania to the hungry, given we don’t manage to get food to the hungry right now?

Yet again, we have a nice global map, which shows that “it can be done” but which ignores all socio-economic and regional complexities. Is it okay to ignore those? Or is it in fact vitally important NOT to ignore local complexities … ?

Stories from the field: Carnivore-human conflicts in Transylvania

By Ine Dorresteijn

When it comes to large carnivores, Romania differs from many other European countries. While large carnivores have gone extinct or remain in only small or heavily fragmented populations in most of Europe, Romania still harbors large populations of both wolves and brown bear. To conserve carnivore populations in Europe, large efforts are being made to improve the coexistence between carnivores and humans. In Romania, however, humans and carnivores coexist for centuries despite high densities of both humans and carnivores. Nevertheless, inevitably conflicts between humans and carnivores do also exist here. Our project is trying to gain more insight into the nature of these conflicts. At the moment we are conducting interviews with shepherds, villagers and village representatives about conflicts with carnivores. Here are a few stories we encountered while doing the interviews in Transylvania.

Shepherds in our study area encounter both attacks of both wolves and bears. To protect livestock against carnivores, shepherds use sheepdogs which seem to be quite an effective measure. Despite the fact that bear attacks happen more frequently, wolves are the most hated carnivore. Even shepherds that have never see a wolf have a strong aversion against them. One of the reasons is that wolves usually take more than one sheep at a time, whereas bears usually only kill one sheep. Therefore, most shepherds have the opinion that bears should not be removed from the area in general, but that bears that frequently kill sheep should be shot. The support for wolves, on the other hand, is low. Most of the attacks happen during the night; nevertheless, attacks during the day are not rare. We even witnessed the end of an attack from wolves on a sheep herd during our interviews! Below is a movie clip that shows the wolves running away after the attack.

Not only shepherds but also villagers encounter problems with especially bears. As bears are partly vegetarian, they love to eat fruits, maize and honey. To get to these food items they sometimes visit the villages and destroy orchards, maize fields and bee hives. Below is a picture of a destroyed beehive (Pic. 1). The owner of the beehive said the bear destroyed 20 of his hives and left only 4 standing in his garden (Pic. 2). In another village a man showed us where a bear had tried to destroy the storage shelter for his maize (Pic. 3). On the picture the owner shows where you can still see the marks of the nails, which gives an impression of size of the bear. The two places where the wooden bars are missing were torn out by the bear. Even though bears give troubles, when we ask the villagers if they have any further opinions on bears, most of them just shrug or mention that the bear also has to eat. There are just few that want to shoot the bears, although in almost each village there is someone with this opinion.

When we ask about bear attacks on humans themselves, people often answer first with “Yes that happens”, “Bears often attack people”, “There are too many bears”, and “They are dangerous, we have seen it on the news”. However, when we specifically ask them about their village, no incidents between humans and bears actually have happened. This shows that the opinion of people on the danger of bears is mainly fuelled by the media. Especially at the moment discussions about the danger and conservation of bears are heating up in the Romanian media after a person in a different county was attacked by a bear not so long ago. For an article in English please follow this link.

Land sparing versus land sharing at #ECCB2012

By Joern Fischer

Reporting on my second day from the European Section Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology … this morning was the symposium on land sparing or land sharing. I was one of the speakers, and I thoroughly enjoyed this session. I found it was one of the highest quality sessions I have recently been to. It could of course be that I’m biased … (no kidding?!) … but seriously, I think all the speakers made really interesting, well articulated points. Sorry if you missed it!

What’s even better: Ben Phalan and I have had exchanged quite a lot of views beyond the session. While some disagreements remain (and will remain), I am very pleased that we were able to exchange thoughts very freely — our “attacks” are on arguments, and not the person, in both directions. Good stuff, I think!

Ben Phalan started the session, talking about the conceptual model by Green et al., as well as outlining his findings from Ghana and India (his Science paper). He very carefully defined what his work could, and could not, show. In terms of internal consistency, I think Ben’s work was very good, and his presentation very nice.

After Ben, I argued that we need to look beyond yields and biodiversity — food systems are a lot more complex, and require us to investigate social-ecological systems in their entirety. My presentation is available here (though I said a fair bit more than what’s on the slides).

Teja Tscharntke gave a fantastic presentation, summarising his recent Biological Conservation paper. He emphasised the importance of smallholder agriculture for food security; the importance of ecosystem services; and the potential role of agroecological intensification. His talk was packed with facts and references, and was extremely authoritative — superb job I think.

Ezter Kovacs then presented a European-wide overview of Europe’s agricultural policy, including the notion of High Nature Value farmland. She showed that much of Europe was in fact land-sharing dominated at present; and that opportunities to spare “wilderness” actually were very limited. As the first speaker in the symposium, she put the focus on Europe.

Johan Ekroos presented a nice conceptual model, showing that how we go about conservation depends on an appropriate definition of  objectives. If we’re trying to conserve rare species, he argued, we may need to spare intact landscapes (in his definition, including low-intensity grasslands). For functionally important species, however, land sharing may be very important.

Tibor Hartel then highlighted that social-ecological systems cannot be “optimised” narrowly with respect to yields. He emphasised the links between people and nature; and the need to maintain or re-create those links. He also showed that the yield gaps identified by Foley et al. for eastern Europe nicely mapped onto HNV farmland …

Finally, Laura Sutcliffe represented Fundatia Adept. She gave a very concise insight about southern Transylvania, showing beyond reasonable doubt that nature and people are closely linked. Land sharing, she argued, provided major opportunities for Romanian agriculture, whereas land sparing provided a major threat.

After the session, many of us went for lunch together; and continued discussions. This one isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon, but there is general agreement that we need to be clear about our objectives — and then we have a chance to move forward. If you look at my presentation (link above), one of my last slides suggests a tentative way forward — identifying our values and objectives; and then using regional social-ecological studies to solve food system problems at this scale. To my mind, there will be no one-size-fits-all solution!

If you attended the session, or did not, but want more debate on this, comment to heart’s content!

Common agricultural policy: a tragedy for the commons?

By Tibor Hartel

The winds/wings of the European Union (EU) start to arrive in Romania, including the Saxon landscapes of Transylvania. This may mean many good things, but also may have negative consequences. Probably context matters here too. Below I give a short example regarding this, using grazing as example.

Low intensity grazing maintained heterogeneous landscapes, although pastures were cleaned from scrubs every year by the traditional societies of this region. Pastures in the Saxon landscapes were communally used, and each member of the society was ‘interested’ in keeping these pastures in ‘good quality’. The traditional links between people and communal pastures were degraded till a certain degree by the communism – but not eroded totally (this is good!). A period appeared after 1989 when the number of grazing animals dropped (and the buffalo almost disappeared) due to a number of socio-economic factors. One consequence of this was the increase of scrub cover in the pastures.

Heterogeneous pasture grazed by cattle.

From 2007 Romania is part of EU. Since then, agri-environment payments ‘facilitate’ the re-use of the previously abandoned pastures. This is quite successful: people not only clean the pastures, but also, grazing starts to increase in its intensity. Apparently looks like a good thing, EU could smile in a satisfied way: ‘yeah – good job!’ – the EU would say.

What EU probably not envisioned well: social context matters, and reducing everything to financial incentives can harm and blind people, ultimately making them kind of crazy and unhappy.

To turn back to pastures and grazing. Pastures are cleaned, true. But can we consider ‘cleaning’ when whole pastures (often whole landscapes) are burned? This recent phenomena is often explained as a direct consequence of ‘easy access’ of agri-environment money. These uncontrolled burnings cause unpreceeded environmental damages in these landscapes. The many old, veteran trees burned in the wood-pastures of Southern Transylvania during the process of ‘pasture cleaning’ are very visible victims of this new, apparently ‘autocorrelated’ mass craziness hitting Transylvanian and Romanian landscapes. The phenomenon is getting huge and uncontrolled proportions.

Ancient tree burned in a wood-pasture.

Pastures are indeed grazed – an apparently good thing. But, again, something seem to be ‘released’: people seem to not care about maintaining a pasture productive. It is all about having a lot of grazing animals – sheep in this case, mostly because the economy of sheep beats the economy of cows and buffalos. The Saxon landscapes of Transylvania probably never experienced so many sheep than now. Sheep literally ‘shave’ the landscape, the pastures after this intensive sheep grazing looks like a well managed golf terrain. This, in combination with the above mentioned fire and other threats (like invasive species) don’t give good perspectives for these pastures, in the new world when the (more or less latent) driver is the EU and global changes knock at the door.

Pasture ‘shaved’ by sheep and ‘cleaned’ with the financial help for ‘agro-environment’.

The EU payment systems also affected the way how people organize themselves around the use of pastures. There may be some lucky situations when all seem to go well, and people share the benefits. But this is a very rare situation. The more likely situation is that the number of people interested in grazing suddenly increases: people who had nothing to do with grazing (but with offices) suddenly access huge amounts of lands and start grazing. Corruption events are generally in the air – when people talk about how newly the ‘communal pastures’ are ‘shared’. When money go in the ‘hearth’ of the landuse and society then people don’t value each other anymore, they seem to not value nature anymore, and a blind race for money start and those who become rich over night will give the rhythm of that community. Possibly a ‘regime shift’ will occur which ends with a ‘new type of equilibrium’ with few winners and many losers.

And now a last point: the global change is in the door of these landscapes. Imagine the fate of these over grazed and over burned landscapes and their biodiversity, under a weak and corrupt governance in a world when the summers are increasingly hot, dry and they length is also increase. When the autumn and winter precipitations are not enough to refill the water loss from soils happening in the extreme summers. And when the pressure for even more production is likely.

What type of world you see, imagining these?:)

I think this path is not useful for people and nature of the Saxon landscapes. And the ball is both in the hands of the EU and the local leaders to develop a viable strategy for the future of these landscapes.

Who will work the land in the future in the traditional rural landscapes of Romania?

by Tibor Hartel

We recently run 15 scenario building workshops in the Saxon area of Transylvania (Romania). In a nutshell, these rural societies still manage their lands in largely traditional way. The soils are fertile and ‘ecologically active’ and as a result they are productive and also (of course facilitated by the forests and grasslands) they filter the ground water making it comestible for drinking, cooking etc. Most of villages rely almost entirely on these services of the soil. One important problem is that the traditional agriculture loses its economic profitability. This can have multiple consequences like land abandonment (which triggers scrub encroachment), land use intensification and land use change.

Below I make an ‘averaged’ model about how some focus groups participating in the scenario building exercise perceive the fate of these lands in the future.

Low economic profitability of lands (coupled with no alternative income) will result in financial poorness. People will likely abandon, intensify or / and eventually sell their lands.

In Western Europe the competition for agricultural land increases. Therefore the foreigner interest to buy lands in Romania will increase. Foreigners are amazed about the huge productivity of these lands and … how cheap they are.

Local institutions are luckily corrupt and weak enough to make the region attractive to opportunist ‘investors’ (this is my addition:)).

Mechanized agriculture will be introduced on large parcels of lands – in ‘western fashion’. This doesn’t need local labour because machineries are more efficient than humans, and therefore more useful and economic than humans.

The ground water will be contaminated with chemicals. This will make fountain water toxic and dangerous.

The money, as usually, will go…and the people will have no money and no land. And no clear water in the ground anymore. And no opportunity to develop a clever market system for traditional food products – from which everybody would benefit and nevertheless which would keep the environment and the people who consume its services healthy. And no way to turn back…

With the two pictures below I illustrate the above written situation. Luckily the two pictures shows two landscapes which geomorphologically are similar but the landuse is different.

Heterogeneous and highly biodiverse rural landscape in Southern Transylvania were the corncrake (Crex crex), yellow bellied toads (Bombina variegata) and tens of other internationally threatened plants and animals coexist with the extensive agriculture.

Intensive agriculture destroy the ecological value of the landscape. In short term indeed increases production but in long term the environmental and social costs may be too high. Alternative solutions need to be found to not start going in a path which is known to be damaging.

After looking to these pictures, I have some questions: what you think, which agricultural type is more sustainable, which landscape is more resilient and more biodiverse? And which produces better ground water for drinking? And finally, why people do things about which they may know that it will result in more harm than good? We still allow such failures?

Poorness and lack of precaution, combined with other things like corrupt system and hunger for achieving quick money may push people from one perceived poorness category into another, more drastic (I would say more miserable) one.

This is a likely path for the rural areas of Southern Transylvania – in the perception of some people.

Conservation research in Southern Transylvania: the context matters

by Dan Turtureanu

I spent almost one month in Southern Transylvania doing vegetation sampling. During this time I had a lot of discussions with colleagues about the ecology of various groups and also about the sampling design implemented here.

One thing I noticed was that management interventions may be strongly context-dependent. For instance, grazing with buffalo and cow in wood-pastures may create and maintain optimal habitats for certain animals like the yellow bellied toad. Old trees are important habitats for some woodland related birds, mushrooms and various insects and so on. Thus, having these elements here it’s great!

However, the news are not so good for plants: wood-pastures harbor only extremely common plant species and their richness at fine scales seems to be very low compared to other grasslands in Transylvania. In my perception, these pastures and wood-pastures are degraded, and are dominated by species like Agrimonia eupatoria, Lolium perenne, Trifolium repens, Dactylis glomerata. I admit that these plants are valuable for biomass production (which is crucial for maintaining livestock), and may be important drivers for ecosystem functioning.

Heavily grazed pasture in Southern Transylvania

Recently, we put the problem of sampling the grassy vegetation of these landscapes in order to assess their state. Should we focus on more rare or common species? Rare species and those that are locally known to be indicators of ‘healthy grasslands’ may be some ‘ecological delicatesses’, indeed, but don’t contribute too much to ecosystem functioning – this was one, and acceptable argument. Amount matters, and not only in publications :). And indeed, many western-European examples show: common species can be also in decline – this seems to be evident e.g. in farmland birds too, but not only. Therefore, let’s focus on the drivers, we are not the only ones who do that. Here I would like to add one point: if the aim is to understand these landscapes and systems (i.e. from Eastern Europe), and to promote management plans to conserve their biota, we need to consider rare and indicator taxa as well, and reflect on some realities which are present here. The ecological delicatesses (sensu written above) may have little importance as ecosystem drivers, true, but they may be extremely important as mirrors / indicators of the quality of the natural environment (including the environment assured by the common species). Common species may not show significant changes in abundance or diversity when systems are affected by disturbance. In contrast, the frequency of more rare or indicator species is very likely to change fast, mainly because of they are known to have higher sensitivity. These species still occur in Transylvanian Lowlands, but are locally disappearing very often, mainly because of land use intensification. Such species are for example: Sanguisorba officinalis, Gentiana pneumonanthe, Echium russicum and Salvia nutans.

 

A high-nature value mowed grassland with Echium russicum

Therefore, how an ideal approach should be?

I guess it depends on context. The management interventions which result in good yellow bellied toad habitats may not be the best for many plants. It may be that the ecologically ‘decisive’ phenomena happen in the major landcovers and the common species are crucial for this. But one needs to know: there is biodiversity beyond the common species, and the rest of the species need to be considered also, even if they occur sporadically or quite rarely, and thus not having too much functional importance in the landscape. These may be vulnerable to change both at regional and local scales. Conservation biologists need to consider understand both, simultaneously, in order to capture the whole and give voice for the ecological minorities too – and not only for the majority.