To shave a mountain

By Teàrlach Quinnell
BBC Journalist

  • Published
MowingImage source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
People from Scotland, England, Norway and Sweden gather each year to cut a meadow in Romania

Earlier this month, BBC Gaelic journalist Teàrlach Quinnell travelled to Transylvania, Romania, to join others from all over Europe at a hay camp. Held annually, the camp's residents use scythes and traditional methods to cut a meadow high on a mountainside.

Orodik is crowned with flowers.

From its summit of about 1,200m (3,900ft), in every direction, you see a thousand other hills, rolling, pyramidal, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Like Orodik they are all part tree-clad, part-meadow, dotted with innumerable wooden hay sheds.

There is little grass in the meadows. They are covered in flowers and herbs - marjoram, St John's Wort, yarrow, orchids, thistles, yellow rattle and many more - and crawling with vocal insect life.

Occasionally you spot a paw-print of a wild bear. There are also wolves.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
Romania's meadows are rich in plantlife

But it is man that makes this landscape possible.

Five hundred years ago this area, Gyimes, Hungarian for "Place of Elk", was a wilderness. Then came the Csángós.

These people left the Hungarian-speaking Szekler communities, and carved out small farms for themselves in the mountains and valleys of Gyimes.

Over the centuries the meadows where they cut their hay have become some of the richest natural grassland in Europe, with 60 to 90 plant species in an area of four square metres.

Many people locally gather medicinal herbs from the meadows, and they are never sprayed.

They are mown once a year, to preserve their varied, multi-coloured summer growth for winter cattle feed.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
The view from Orodik

That is why I, and 20 or so others, climbed Orodik one August morning with scythes and rakes on our shoulders.

We have come from Scotland, England, Norway and Sweden, to mow, turn, gather and stack the hay.

'My ancestors'

The word Csángó, in Hungarian, means "strayed from the herd", and the man we are working for certainly doesn't follow the herd.

Sarig Attila is a 34-year-old farmer, who is breaking the mould, determined to ensure the survival of the ecosystem his forebears created.

"I think that my ancestors, they worked at least 300 years to create this landscape, and these meadows that we have now, and it will be a pity, in my opinion, to lose all these meadows," said Attila.

"If we abandon these meadows, then we will lose them.

"For me this haymaking camp is important to try to save a few meadows with the tourists who come here and help us to make the hay."

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
Sarig Attila wants to protect a landscape created by his forebears

Traditional farming is under pressure.

Romania has around a quarter of all the farmers in the EU, with many having too little land to qualify for subsidies.

Many are turning their backs on the land. Many high meadows are not mown, in a short time the forest returns, and the biodiversity, so long in the making, is lost.

Attila is not alone in his fight. He is part of an organisation called Pogány-Havas, dedicated to preserving the natural and man-made heritage of the Gyimes and Csík region.

Over the past seven years, his hay camp, drawing dozens of foreign volunteers, has saved about 10 hectares of traditional meadows that were becoming forest, both by mowing the meadows that are in good condition, and by clearing small trees and scrub from abandoned land.

Pogány-Havas made links with conservation organisations in the UK and elsewhere in Europe through the work of Barbara Knowles, who died earlier this year, and who realized the ecological importance of the meadows and the life associated with them.

"We are not aiming at continuation of traditional farming because it won't happen," said the organisation's director, Rodics Gergely.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
Traditional farming is under pressure in Romania

"What we are trying to do is to help local small-scale farmers to improve their farming activities in a way which allows them a proper financial income, and at the same time not to lose too much of the environmental side-effects, so to say, of the high nature-value farming that they are doing now.

"Of course traditional farming would be ideal for nature, but it's just declining, and we cannot stop this process."

Attila makes cheese. Not the traditional simple cheese of this area, but a new, hard, matured cheese, with milk from his cows that eat the mountain hay.

For Attila, the meadows are also about taste. He is aiming to create a high-value product, so that farming this land will give a good living.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
The meadow is cut with scythes

On the camp, we ate this cheese everyday. It's very good.

"The farmers will see that their work has a value, and in this way they will continue to make the hay in these mountain meadows," said Attila.

"The meadows that we have here, I am sure that they are some of the last very very species rich meadows in Europe, and this is what gives our milk products and our cheese a taste that cheese made from milk produced on big farms with hundreds of cows who maybe never eat in their lives more than 10 types of grass, that can't have the same taste.

"It's a difference that they can't make in the big farms because they don't have these meadows.

Media caption,

Scything hay in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.

"You can't create these meadows artificially. For these meadows you need a hundred years.

"This is a huge treasure that we need to keep."

'Crazy guy'

Attila said: "In this hay, a biologist says that we have more than 60 species of medicinal herbs, and it happens very rarely to have some health problems with our cows. Extremely rare.

"The big majority in Gyimes unfortunately think that I am a crazy guy, because I try to be a farmer, to go on with what my grandfather made.

"And also in the village we have a few people who think that I am clever, and what I've made is a good thing.

"I will let time show for everybody what is the right way, and why I do what I do."

Tourism plays a big part in Attila's approach to farming. Rather than tailor the place to suit the tourists, however, Attila tries to tailor the tourists to suit the place.

"Many people say that this valley is very good for eco-tourism. My opinion is that something more than eco-tourism is better for this valley.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
Haycocks on a high slope on Orodik

"In many cases, in eco-tourism, for the tourists, they just can look, and enjoy the nature.

"But I think that we need to involve somehow the tourists to help us to continue this lifestyle.

"It's a huge job to make this hay in the mountains, and nowadays when more and more young people abandon the village, we don't have human force to do this job.

"For this you need human force. Machines are not enough.

"I think this year that the tourists made a great job, and they mowed very very well.

"I just hope that they also realize what a huge help they were for us."

Enigmatic tool

One cow needs 16 haycocks, of a size that can be hauled by a single horse, to feed it through the winter. We made 28, on two hectares. Attila has four cows.

The scythe is an enigmatic tool. It is so ideally suited to the task it was designed for that it inspires something akin to love amongst its proponents.

You never hear it when mowing, but a good sharp scythe, used properly, emits an almost synthesized "swish" noise, which it projects forwards, away from the mower.

Orodik rang with this noise, alongside that of about a million grasshoppers and crickets, for the two days we were mowing, stretched out in staggered lines, under the hot sun, progressing sweep by sweep downhill.

Image source, Teàrlach Quinnell
Image caption,
The sun goes down at the end of another day's work on the mountain

Most of the group were new to the scythe, but strengthened by a light breakfast, preceded by a shot of Pálinka, many got the hang of it well, and the grass and flowers fell, to be instantly swept into an ordered row to the mower's left, leaving a clear and more or less even stubble behind, about 2m wide.

In this way, with a little help from a small finger-bar mower used by Attila, two hectares of grass were cut over two days, to be turned and gathered with wooden rakes, and when dry stacked in 28 two-metre high, carefully constructed stacks.

These stacks, built on spread tree branches, are readily hauled by a single horse to the hay sheds, where they are piled in, to be taken down to the village on a horse-drawn sledge in the winter.

We spent two nights on the mountain, sleeping on a bed of freshly mown grass in the hay shed, our meals cooked in a huge cauldron hung over an open fire.

Our Csángó hosts told us, as the strains of a violin filled the evening air, that when they were young, at night, fires were to be seen on all the hillsides around, as whole families climbed up to make their hay, and spend their evenings in music, singing and dancing round the fires.

The hills were dark at night when we were there. Except Orodik.

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