Mountain Hay Meadows: the Romanian Context and the Effects of Policy on High Nature Value Farming


Pogány-havas Microregion Association, Szék útja 123, Csíksomlyó, Miercurea Ciuc, Harghita County, Romania, RO - 530203

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Romania, rural development, traditional agriculture, biodiversity, Common Agricultural Policy, agri-environment payments, ecosystem services, policy


In this paper I provide a context and background for this publication, and consider issues of national and European policy that affect meadow ecosystems in Romania.

I describe the benefits for Romania of allowing as many as possible of its small-scale farmers to continue managing the land in an environmentally sustainable manner through traditional methods which create and maintain a mosaic landscape that is highly beneficial to biodiversity.

In addition to the many ecosystem services provided by traditional extensive agriculture, these farmers provide food, social stability and meaningful work for their families and communities. The state cannot afford to pay for these free goods and services provided by semi subsistence farmers.

The current reformulation of the Common Agricultural Policy provides an opportunity for change. Policymakers should re-examine what they mean by efficiency in agriculture, and include environmental and social costs and benefits on the balance sheet alongside the economic ones.

Much more could be done by local, national and European government to ensure that the smallholders of Romania can have an economically sustainable future while maintaining their socially, culturally and environmentally valuable way of life.


In this UN Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020), it is timely to celebrate the exceptional biodiversity of the hay meadows of Transylvania and the living rural communities that created and manage them. But we should also consider why – after surviving for a thousand years during a turbulent history of invasions, empires, world wars, fascist and communist regimes and neglectful or interventionist governments – these meadows and the traditional communities that support them are now under threat from globalisation and from European and Romanian policies which aim to protect them.

“The need for measures to prevent the loss of high nature value farmland is widely acknowledged. Conservation of biodiversity on agricultural land is an explicit objective of the Pan-European Biodiversity and Landscape Strategy (PEBLDS), the Bern Convention, the European Landscape Convention, and, at EU level, the Habitats and Birds Directives and Rural Development Policy (Community Strategic Guidelines for Rural Development, Programming Period 2007-2013). In its 6th Environment Action Programme, the EU committed itself to halting biodiversity decline by 2010. Conserving High Nature Value farmland is key to achieving this 2010 biodiversity target.” (Paracchini et al., 2008).


Much of Europe’s biodiversity exists in its extensively managed permanent grasslands. Managed grasslands exist to provide summer grazing and winter fodder (hay, silage) for cows, sheep, goats, horses and other livestock. Traditionally managed hay meadows are especially rich in flora and fauna, sustain much loved and iconic species such as the white stork and orchids, put on spectacular displays of flowers, and offer a refuge for endangered species which were widespread in Europe before the mechanisation and intensification of agriculture. They form a landscape - created by rural cultures - which is much appreciated for its aesthetic qualities by visitors and locals alike.
Ecosystem goods and services ranging from food, medicinal herbs, pollination, flood alleviation, water purification, carbon storage and cultural treasures are provided by meadows (Page et al., 2011; UK National Ecosystem Assessment, 2011).
These meadows, and the farmers who manage them, form a precious living archive of knowledge and resources that has been lost in much of Europe but which we need for future conservation projects, sustainable agriculture and public policy development. The UK has lost over 98% of its flower-rich hay meadows since the 1930s, when the modern intensification of agriculture began in that country. Transylvanian hay meadows, with their astounding biodiversity, remind us of what has been lost and show us how to regain it.

Although attempts are being made to identify, measure and put an economic valuation on the goods and services provided by nature and semi-natural systems (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, 2010; UK National Ecosystem Assessment, 2011), the valuation tools and the data feeding into them are currently inadequate for the job. This makes it impossible at present to calculate the hugely positive value of the work done by the millions of farmers in Romania and the rest of Europe who maintain well-loved cultural landscapes and protect so many precious and endangered species. Smallholders who farm in a way that protects the environment are at a significant financial disadvantage compared to intensive farming businesses that do not pay the full costs for environmental damage and pollution caused by their activities, yet who receive enormous public subsidy through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).


Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union, has 4% of the EU’s population but 29% of its agricultural holdings and 20% of its agricultural workers (Eurostat, 2008).

Table 1 gives a numerical overview of Romania’s position in Europe with respect to its rural environment and farming as they relate to the themes of this volume.

  EU27 Romania % EU27 Rank (out of 27)
Population [1] 495,000,000 21,565,119  4 7
Land area, km2 [2] 4,200,000 230,000 6 9
GDP per inhabitant, PPS 2007 [2] 24,700 9,100 37 26
No. of agricultural holdings [1] 13,700,400 3,931,350  29 1
Size of holding, ha, 2005 [3] 11.5 3.2 28  
Total farm labour force, full-time equivalent [1] 11,693,130 2,205,280 19 2
Family farm labour force, no. of adults [1] 24,827,060 6,395,790 26 1
Dairy cows 2008 [4] 24,248,000 1,483,000 6 7
Average size of herd 2007 [4] 9.8 1.6   27
Dairy cow yield kg milk/head/year 2008 [4] 6133 3272   27
Deliveries of cows’ milk to dairies, as % of production 2008 [4] 90.3% 21.6%   27
Collection of cows' milk by approved dairies 1000 t 2009 [1] 134,361.99 991.59 0.1 17
High Nature Value (HNV)
farmland, ha [6]
74,659,056 4,860,372 7 6
% usable agricultural area in extensive grazing [7] 22.8% 38.6%    

[1] Eurostat, 2007
[3] National Rural Development Programme of Romania, 2009.
[4] EU, 2009a
[6] Paracchini et al., 2008
[7] EU, 2009b

Romania has 14,709,300 hectares of agricultural land (2007 data). Most of it is arable (63.9%), but pastures and hay meadows comprise 22.6% (3,330,000 ha) and 10.4% (1,531,400 ha) respectively. The hay meadow area shows a slightly rising trend (National Institute of Statistics, 2009) but this could be explained by registration for subsidies.

In 2005, there were 4,256,152 farm holdings (Table 2). The average Romanian farm is 3.37 hectares, made up of 3.73 parcels, which places it well below the European average farm size. Individual holdings (ie subtracting the large agribusinesses) average just 2.15 hectares in 3.7 parcels. Farming at least 1 hectare made of parcels no smaller than 0.3 hectares is the pre-requisite for being listed in the Farm Register and for receiving agri-environment payments (National Rural Development Programme, 2009).

Dairy farming in Romania is characterised by the smallest herds, lowest milk yields, and lowest percentage of milk production marketed through dairies in the EU. Milk production increased by 14% from 1998-2005; cow and buffalo milk rose by 12%. However, supply continues to be scattered, and the collection of raw milk for commercial use is estimated to cover less than a quarter of the total supply (National Rural Development Programme, 2009).

Table 2: Number of agricultural holdings in Romania, by size

Holding size (Economic Size Unit)
1 ESU = approx €1,200 annual income
Number of holdings %
0-2 3,871,242 91
2-8 354,317 8
8-40 25,541 0.6
40-100 3,084 <0.1
Over 100 1,968 <0.1
Total 4,256,152 100

Source: National Rural Development Programme, 2009

From a capitalist, market-oriented perspective, traditional subsistence- and semi-subsistence small-holding, as practised on nearly 4 million tiny holdings in rural Romania, is inefficient and should be rationalised and modernised. And indeed state socialism also viewed it in the same light, and collectivised and mechanised smallholdings wherever possible, from 1962 to 1989. But the rural population of Romania rapidly reverted to private ownership and management of family smallholdings after the fall of the communist regime at the end of 1989 (Verdery, 2003).

This way of life can be seen as a resilient and rational response by individual families to economic threats, job insecurity, low or no pensions, and social change. Although inefficient in many respects, this system nonetheless continues to sustain a substantial proportion of Romania’s population. It provides over 6 million adults and their families with food and meaningful work which the government would not otherwise be able to supply. It supports other family members in low paid urban jobs who enjoy fresh produce from their family’s village. And it also supplies numerous environmental and cultural services described below, whose value is significant but not currently accounted for in definitions of agricultural productivity and efficiency.

Among the 27 member states of the EU, Romania has the highest biogeographical diversity (with 5 biogeographical regions out of the 11 at European level) and most are in a good conservation status. 3,700 species of plant were identified in Romania, of which 23 are declared monuments of nature, 74 are extinct, 39 are endangered, 171 are vulnerable and 1,253 are rare (Ministerul Mediului şi Pădurilor, 2000). Approximately 60% of the estimated taxa in Romania are represented by species that are typical for alpine and sub-alpine permanent grasslands, grasslands and mountain meadows (National Rural Development Programme of Romania 2009). The Carpathians and Carpathian Basin are also important hotspots of phylogenetic diversity for many species (reviewed by Cogălniceanu and Cogălniceanu, 2010).

The hay meadows of Transylvania support flora and fauna of exceptional quality, quantity and variety, a fact that is not currently captured in European statistics about high nature value farming, nor recognised in the volume of conservation research and funding. Unlike much of Europe, they still contain viable populations of species that are rare elsewhere, and interconnected habitats of enormous conservation value.


In common with the rest of the EU, most CAP money for Romania goes to a small number of large companies rather than to family farms. There was a €1,042 million spend in 2008, representing €245 per farm and €76 per hectare. The top 20 recipients received €40,363,402, almost 4% of the total, while the bottom 20 got less than €20 each (data downloaded from 10 July 2010, now no longer available).
In most cases farmers remain the most logical managers of the land (European Commission, 2001). And this option will be significantly more cost effective for maintenance of the landscape, biodiversity ecosystem services, and more socially and economically sustainable than making a few million subsistence farmers and their families lose their livelihoods.
A range of agri-environment payments is available to Romanian farmers (summarised by Péter, 2011). The most valuable holdings for biodiversity are the smallest ones, since it is the mosaic of idiosyncratically managed land, with small meadows mown annually at different times over the season and fertilised with varying amounts of manure, that provides the greatest spatial and temporal diversity of habitats and food for living things (Johst et al., 2001, Huband and McCracken, 2011). Yet, perversely, many of the most environmentally valuable holdings (71%, ie 3 million holdings) are not even classified as farms and are ineligible for some agricultural payments in Romania because they are too small (National Rural Development Programme of Romania, 2009). Policy instruments such as this exclusion by size, and other incentives and pressures to reduce the number of small farms or intensify production, will be harmful to biodiversity (Benton et al., 2003).
“Support for the maintenance of these environmentally beneficial farming systems will be a critical component of the policy setting if the undersupply of public goods is to be addressed in a satisfactory way. … Alongside … interventions at the landscape scale, specific measures which are more precisely targeted in the locations where the supply of public goods is particularly concentrated, notably in the more extensively grazed areas, will also be critical” (Cooper et al., 2009).



In the last quarter of a century the global economy has doubled, while an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded (Jackson, 2009). 193 countries have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, yet none achieved its 2010 biodiversity target.

There is a fundamental contradiction in European Union and national agricultural and rural development policies which hope at the same time to increase economic efficiency and competitiveness on the one hand; and to protect environmental goods and services on the other. This contradiction needs to be made more explicit in policy discourse in order to be resolved.

The current reformulation of the Common Agricultural Policy provides an opportunity for change. We need to re-examine what we mean by efficiency in agriculture, and include environmental and social costs and benefits on the balance sheet alongside the economic ones. Public subsidies should not be paid for environmentally damaging practices without understanding their full ecological, social and economic cost.

The most environmentally valuable holdings should be eligible for agri-environment funding, irrespective of their size (as mentioned above, small farms with small parcels of land are currently ineligible).

The Government should adopt different agricultural development policies for the different agricultural zones as determined by their different physical characteristics and nature value. This would mean that intensive mechanised farming would be practised on the plains to produce the bulk of the national food requirements where, currently, there are huge areas of uncultivated land. Payments to the smaller farmers working the environmentally sensitive areas would be calculated to compensate farmers for the different (lower) returns and the value of the biodiverse and environmentally acceptable (but efficient) farming practices.

Rather than imposing centralised, homogeneous management prescriptions on farmers who are already maintaining high biodiversity on their land, policy instruments and payments should learn from this effective management and reward it. The implicit knowledge of traditional farming communities needs to be recorded, protected and made explicit.

In Romania, as elsewhere, policy measures should be adaptive: able to change if monitoring shows them to be ineffective or to have undesirable ecological outcomes. For example, imposition of a single mowing date across Romania (1 July), possibly intended to protect ground-nesting birds, damages the mosaic pattern of long and short grass on which many other species (for example storks) thrive, makes no sense to farmers in varied geographic and climatic zones, and is likely to be harmful to some plants and invertebrates (for example Konvicka et al., 2007 describe the extinction of a butterfly by the mowing regime required by an agri-environment scheme in the Czech Republic designed to protect ground-nesting birds).

In the case of the Romanian agri-environment scheme on grasslands important for birds, prescribed mowing dates (after July 31) are totally different from traditional mowing dates (early June) in some corncrake hotspots (Demeter and Szabó, 2005). Clearly, allowing farmers to continue to choose their own mowing dates in such hotspots will not harm the corncrakes, which have thrived under the existing land management decisions. Imposition of a new, late mowing date in these circumstances is unlikely to benefit the corncrake, is likely to harm other fauna and flora, and produces low quality hay in many areas.

A ban on small hand-mowing machines for farmers wishing to access the traditional farming package subsidy for high nature value grasslands makes farming less efficient and more arduous while having minimal if any benefit to wildlife. This policy is likely to increase abandonment of meadows, rather than encouraging a return to hand mowing.
EU and national regulations put severe restrictions on milk quality, which imperil traditional sources of income for local populations. Hygiene regulations have damaged local small-scale food production by imposing unrealistic standards on small producers. This problem, and some solutions, are discussed more fully elsewhere in this publication (Page et al., 2011). Adaptive policy is essential in the area of food hygiene and processing, too. In many cases the regulations are severely detrimental to small farmers and producers while having no proportionate benefit in food safety.

Restrictions on slaughtering animals on the farm and difficulties in getting permits for small local slaughterhouses mean that in parts of Harghita County there is no slaughterhouse within 150 km and consequently no legal source of fresh local meat for guesthouses and other businesses who wish to buy it.

Real and perceived bureaucratic, legal and financial barriers make it difficult for small scale farmers and other potential rural entrepreneurs to create diversified small-farm businesses of the type that is now common in the UK, for example.
Large infrastructure projects, although they are needed in rural areas, are often introduced with insufficient attention to their environmental and aesthetic impacts, are widely perceived to benefit vested interests, and are often badly implemented.
Banning livestock and horses and carts from upgraded roads makes sense in terms of road safety, but alternative routes must be provided for farmers to move their animals. This should be included in the costs of road modernisation programmes, otherwise traditional farming is endangered.

While adaptive policies are needed, there is a notable lack of funding for research that monitors the effects of policy measures and subsidies on ecosystems and rural livelihoods. A proportion of these subsidies and ministry budgets should be made available to the environment agencies, universities and NGOs to conduct and publish such policy-relevant research.

Much more could be done by local, national and European government to ensure that the smallholders of Romania with environmentally sensitive farms can have an economically sustainable future while maintaining their socially, culturally and environmentally valuable way of life.


“Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times” (Jackson, 2009).

A more holistic approach to environment, agriculture, food, rural development, social, taxation and trade policies is needed if Romania and Europe wish to maintain their living rural communities and the rich natural environment which small-scale farmers sustain.

The mountain hay meadows of Transylvania offer a shining example of the natural treasures that environmentally sustainable agriculture can provide, and an inspiration to all of us to help them to become economically sustainable in the modern world.


I thank Demeter László and Jeremy Staniforth for helpful comments and improvements to the manuscript.


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The author works as a volunteer with the Pogány-havas Microregion Association, but writes here in a personal capacity. Opinions are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Association.