The idiosyncratic history of Transylvania means it is now home to some of the most biodiversity rich grasslands in Europe. Farming continues to be dominated by low intensity practices brought over by the Saxons (ethnic Germans) who were forced to settle in the region in the 12th century to protect the Holy Roman Empire from invasion by tribes in Central Asia. Landownership in the region therefore occurs in relatively informal land parcels that are comprised of up to 100 individually owned farms most of which measure under three hectares. The boundaries between farms within parcels are not physically delineated by walls or fences. The lack of physical boundaries means that connectivity across the agricultural landscape of Transylvania is high and when this is coupled with low intensity farming, it creates a unique mosaic of high value hay meadows, sheep pasture, and small scale arable farmland.
Europe’s turbulent 20th century history caused Transylvania to change hands between the Hungarian and Romanian empires several times, which catalysed the mass migration of Saxons back to Germany after WWII. This exodus was intensified by Romania’s harsh communist regime which caused a second efflux in the early 1990s meaning that just 11,000 ethnic Germans remain in the region today. The loss of traditional farming practices associated with the mass emigration, coupled with the sale of ‘abandoned’ land to large agrifood companies, is a major threat to the biodiversity of Transylvanian grasslands because high intensity farming practices are becoming the norm. Recent estimates suggest that 47.8% of all farmland in Romania is now owned by large agrifood companies. As these businesses look to expand, land prices are increasing by 10-15% every year and many of the remaining Saxon families are selling their small-scale farms because EU subsidies are no longer sufficient to support a low-intensity-low-yield approach.
rePLANET Wildlife, in collaboration with the local NGO Fundatia Adept, has established two avoided loss projects to protect >4000 hectares of grassland in the Tarnarva Mare region. In the remote valleys of Daia and Ţeline, most arable land is traditionally farmed, but there is clear evidence of land use change to largescale agriculture. Money raised through the sale of biodiversity and carbon credits will be used to supplement the EU subsidies paid to farmers in these valleys which will incentivise them to retain their land and prevent further encroachment of large agrifood businesses. Stopping the expansion of largescale agriculture in this region is essential for preventing devastating biodiversity loss in one of the most important man-made landscapes in Europe.