Natural Treasures of the Csík Basin (Depresiunea Cicului) and Csík Mountains (Munţii Ciucului)

László DEMETER 1, Anna-Mária CSERGŐ 2, Attila D. SÁNDOR 3, István IMECS 4, Csaba T. VIZAUER 5

1 Sapientia University, str. Libertatii 1, Miercurea-Ciuc, Romania,
2 Sapientia University, str. Sighisoarei 1C, Corunca, Romania,
3 Babes-Bolyai University, str. Gheorghe Dima 37/17, Cluj-Napoca, Romania,
4 Babes-Bolyai University, str. Gheorghe Dima 37/17, Cluj-Napoca, Romania,
5 Romanian Lepidopterological Society, str. Gh.Bilascu nr. 48, Cluj-Napoca, Romania,

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fauna, flora, glacial relics, hay meadows, high nature value farmland, local identity, protected species


In this paper we make an attempt to identify the characteristic natural features of two neighbouring, but geographically, ecologically and culturally distinct areas of the Eastern Carpathians. The Csík Basin is one of the large tectonic mountain basins of the Eastern Carpathians and the Csík Mountains are part of the Carpathian flysch. The most characteristic habitats of the basin are fens and other types of wetland habitats. The fens host a large number of boreal and glacial relic plant species and represent the southern limit of the global distribution of some plant and butterfly species. The other wetland habitats are important for specialized invertebrates, fish, amphibians and birds. Most wetlands, especially the main river and its floodplain were heavily degraded in the past five decades. The characteristic feature of the mountains are the secondary grasslands that were created by and for traditional agriculture in the past two to three centuries. Especially the higher altitude hay meadows have an outstanding plant species richness. We argue that although several habitat types have been severely degraded, significant parts of the area are still in a good ecological condition, having many natural features that are typical. We recommend the usage of these features by rural developers in shaping local identity for a more aware usage of natural resources and better integration of local society in the ecosystem.


The Carpathian mountains are among Europe’s most biodiverse areas (Oszlányi et al. 2004). The Csík Basin (Depresiunea Ciucului) and Csík Mountains (Munții Ciucului) are two geographically, geologically and ethnographically distinct areas of the Eastern Carpathians with a total area of more than 3000 km2.

While being one of the most important ethnographic zones of Transylvania, which has attracted many researchers in the past half century, its natural environment is not so well documented.

The health of ecosystems is essential for human wellbeing. It is important that those human communities who live in close connection with the natural environment recognize the value of this relationship and become aware of its global significance. One way to make people more aware of the value of nature is to build nature into their local identity. The first step in this process is to identify those elements of the natural environment that are specific for a certain area.

The goal of this paper is to summarize the characteristic natural features of this area based on the available literature and our own research.


The central, western and southern part of the area, the Upper Tatros River catchment area, the Csík Basin and the Kászon Basin is inhabited by two Hungarian speaking ethnic groups, Székelys and Csángós, comprising more than 80% of the population (Varga 1992). The land east and north of this area is inhabited by a Romanian majority population. Significant cultural cross-fertilisation happened in the meeting zone of the two cultures (Hofer 2009). Most toponyms in the area where our studies were made are of Hungarian origin (see for example Csomortáni 2009) and this is how the local population uses them. Therefore, throughout this volume, for settlement names we use the Hungarian names with the Romanian version in brackets at the first mention, while for toponyms we use the Hungarian names with Romanian names in brackets for larger geographical units (rivers, mountains) at the first mentioning and the Hungarian names in the case of small geographical units (streams, peaks). (See a trilingual list of toponyms used in this paper and further in this volume in Table 1).

The culture and history of Székelys and Csángó are well known and appreciated. These include living traditions, special folk costumes, dances, music, crafts especially related to wood usage, architecture (Paládi-Kovács 1988-2002).

What is less well documented and appreciated is the living relationship between the rural population and land. The outstandingly high level of knowledge about plants and ecology of one community has just been studied (Molnár and Babai personal communication). This knowledge is less spectacular than other manifestations of folk culture. It is inherited, learned from childhood and developed through personal experience, being highly relevant in our times, when such a large percentage of human population lives detached from nature and the ecological reality. Much research has to be done to understand and help perpetuate this knowledge.

Table 1. Main toponyms used in this paper and volume.

Hungarian name Romanian name English version used in this volume
Csíki-havasok Munții Ciucului Csík Mountains
Csíki-medence Depresiunea Ciucului Csík Basin
Csomád-hegység Munții Ciomad Csomád Mountains
Gyimes Ghimeș Gyimes
Gyimesfelsőlok Lunca de Sus Gyimesfelsőlok
Gyimesközéplok Lunca de Jos Gyimesközéplok
Hagymás-hegység Munții Hășmaș Hagymás Mountains
Hargita-hegység Munții Harghita Hargita Mountains
Jávárdi pataka, hegy Valea, Muntele Iavardi Jávárdi Valley, Mountain
Kászoni-medence Depresiunea Casin Kászon Basin
Pogány-havas Muntele Păgân Pagan Mountain
Tarkő-hegység Munții Tarcăului Tarkő Mountains
Tatros folyó Râul Trotuș Tatros River


The Csík Basin (Fig. 1, 3) is an Upper Pliocene tectonic basin. It is divided into three sub-units by less sunk parts of the base: the Upper, Middle and Lower Csík-basins (Kristó 1980). The basin floor is about 630-750 m above sea level, with gentle slopes and a wide, almost treeless landscape, which has evolved as a result of landscape alterations since the Middle Ages. Its characteristic features include a relatively wide floodplain, alluvial fans, fluvial terraces, many streams with relatively small flow and a large density of carbonated mineral water springs (Kristó 1980, Jánosi and Péter 2009). The whole area is part of the upper catchment area of the Olt river. Some authors refer to the whole upper catchment of the Olt river to the north of Tusnád gorge as Csík Basin, but geomorphologically the basin is the lowest part of the area. The limit between the basin and the surrounding mountains is not precise, it is represented by the meeting zone of the mountains and the alluvial sediment area that fills the basin (Schreiber 1994).

Fig. 1. View to the South of Lower Csík Basin, with the Csomád volcanic mountains in the background.

The mean flow of the Olt river is 7.9 m³/s (max 158 m³/s in 1970). The climate of the basin is temperate, with two subtypes: sub-alpine mountain (average annual temperature of 1-4ºC) and sub-alpine basin (5.5ºC) climate. The mountain climate is characterized by a longer winter, cooler summer, more wind and precipitation, that reaches 1200 mm on the western slopes of the mountain frame. The basin climate is much drier (600 mm annual precipitation); formation of fog and thermal inversion is characteristic especially during winter. The main wind direction is westerly and northwesterly (Kristó 1994).


Fig. 2. View to the South from the northern parts of the Csík Mts.

The Csík Mountains (Fig. 2, 3) are part of the flysch zone of the Eastern Carpathians (Băncilă 1958). The lowest altitude of the Csík Mountains in the studied area is about 680 m, while highest peaks are between 1300 and 1553 m. There are different opinions about the southwestern border of this mountain. We accept the limits proposed by Kristó (1975) (see Fig. 3).

It has steep slopes, narrow valleys and a patchwork of forests and secondary grasslands. Forest cover is relatively low because of human impact, representing about 50% of the area. 65% of the hydrographic network belongs to the Tatros (Trotuș) river hydrographic basin, and 35% to the Olt hydrographic basin (Zsigmond 2006). The Tatros river has 3.52 m3/s mean annual flow at Gyimesbükk and this river and its tributaries have a highly fluctuating flow with a high frequency of floods (ANAS 2009.

The annual average temperature is 6-7oC, annual precipitation 700-1000 mm (Zsigmond 2006).

Fig. 3. Topography of the studied area and geographic limits of the Csík Basin and Csík Mountains.

Fig. 4. Existing and proposed nature conservation sites (SCI and SPA) and proposed nature reserves in the area.


The Csík Basin is rich in carbonated mineral waters and different types of wetland habitats like fens, mires, quaking bogs, wet meadows and temporary ponds. These, combined with the cold climate of the basin enhanced by thermal inversions, were favorable for the long-term survival of boreal plant species, presumably since the last Ice Age. Many are considered glacial relics in Romania (Pop 1960), and are nationally protected. Three of them: Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus), Arctic Dwarf Birch (Betula humilis) and Dwarf Spindletree (Euonymus nana) reach their southern global limit in this area. Other glacial relics include Siberian Leopard Plant (Ligularia sibirica), Moor-king (Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum), Long-leaved and Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera anglica, D. rotundifolia), Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora). Other boreal plants typical of wet meadows are Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica) and Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium coeruleum), Detailed first descriptions of the flora of peat fens and bogs of the Csík Basin were made by Nyárády (1929) and Pop (1960). Almost all peat fens and bogs have been degraded by the river regulation works and infrastructure development in the 1970s and 1980s (Kerekes 2003). Some other typical species are connected to meadows developed on peaty soils, like Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) and to wet meadows, like Globeflower (Trollius europaeus), Marsh Gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis).

An important contribution to the flora of the area is provided by the recently discovered temporary ponds (Demeter et al. 2005, Csergő and Demeter 2011). These are the most important habitats of Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) and Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora) in the area. Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar luteum) was typical for the oxbow lakes of the Olt river before its regulation, but now it is almost extinct. It was recently rediscovered in one habitat in the Csík Basin (Demeter L., Szabó Sz., personal observations in 2009).

On some of the dry, mostly limestone or dolomite hillsides, extrazonal xerophilous rupicolous grasslands developed, being rich in steppic species like Mountain Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla montana) and Rose Daphne (Daphne cneorum)(Bálint 2004).

The flora of the Csík Mountains was described by Csűrös et al. (1980), Epuran (2000), Pálfalvi (1995). The area is known for the comprehensive botanical knowledge of the local population, emphasized by several ethnobotanical studies (Rab et al. 1981, review by Pálfalvi 2001). A long-term research project conducted in the past decade revealed and quantified an exceptionally detailed living knowledge of the local population on folk plant taxonomy and ecology, documenting for example the highest known number of habitat names used by a human population (Molnár and Babai personal communication).

Due to the topography in the valley of the Tatros and its tributaries, almost every valley is populated. As a result, there is an approximately 100-200 m wide belt on the valley sides that is manured with animal dung and is less botanically diverse, but more productive than the unfertilised higher meadows (Molnár and Babai, 2011). The higher altitude grasslands, especially hay meadows, have an outstanding plant species diversity. Soils are rich in carbonates and this probably contributes to a high number of orchid species including Elder-flowered Orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina), Red Vanilla Orchid (Nigritella rubra), Globe-flowered Orchid (Traunsteinera globosa), Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), Burnt Orchid (Orchis ustulata), Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). Typical rare dicots include Narcissus-flowered Anemone (Anemone narcissifolia), a Carpathian endemic Primrose species (Primula leucophylla), Stemless and Spring Gentian (Gentiana acaulis, G. verna), Broad-leaf Sermountain (Laserpitium latifolium) and One-flowered Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris uniflora).

The occurrence of the Eastern Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) at a single site at 1400 m is exceptional, because this is a continental species found usually on limestone outcrops and sand at lower altitudes in Transylvania. The Europe-wide threatened Tozzia carpathica was described in the neighbouring Tarkő Mountains (Baumgarten 1816), but recently one habitat was found by Dániel Babai in Jávárdi valley. False Tamarisk (Myricaria germanica) occurs on riverine bars of larger streams (Csergő et al.  2011).


Part of the fauna that is specific for the Csík Basin is associated with wetlands. Temporary ponds are inhabited by the spectacular large branchiopods, a ’living fossil’ crustacean group that has eight representatives in the basin (Demeter 2005) and nine calanoid copepods (Demeter and Marrone 2009). Data show that human activities contributed to the formation of shallow ponds favorable for the specialized fauna (Demeter and Péter 2011). Many streams still have important crayfish (Astacus astacus) populations although this species also declined heavily during the past decades (Kósa 2007).

Of spiders, the Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi) is typical of wet meadows, and the Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) is typical of slightly acidic ponds and peat bogs (Urák I. pers. com.).

The fens and bogs of the basin are refuges for boreal hygrophilous moth and butterfly species, some of which reach their southern distribution limit in this area, like a tortrix moth species (Olethreutes olivana), Pearl-band Grass Veneer(Catoptria margaritella), Large Heath (Coenonympha tullia tiphon), Purple Edged Copper(Lycaena hippothoe), a Burnet subspecies (Zygaena nevadensis gheorghenica)(Kovács and Kovács 1985-1986, 1988). The EU protected Large Copper (Lycaena dispar rutila)and Scarce Large Blue (Maculinea teleius)are more widely distributed in wet meadows (Vizauer T., pers. obs.).

The basin had a very rich fish fauna until the 1960s and 1970s, when wastewater from mining, industry and urbanization, and especially river regulation destroyed it. There are no quantitative data on fish diversity of the area before the river regulation, but descriptions and memories of people indicate that fish stocks decreased at a catastrophic rate in the past four to five decades. Very few of the tributaries of the Olt river still have good fish populations (Imecs and Újvári 2009). The Weatherfish (Misgurnus fossilis), once typical of the basin, and wearing the same Hungarian name (Weatherfish is “réti csík” in Hungarian) is nearly extinct from the area (Imecs and Demeter unpublished).

The wet meadows and shallow waters of the basin are good habitats for amphibians, of which Common Frog (Rana temporaria), Moor Frog (R. arvalis), Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) and Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) are typical (Demeter et al. 2006, Demeter and Benkő 2006, Demeter and Mara in press). A special long distance migration through streams has been observed, presented in short in Demeter and Mara (2006).

The wet meadows of the Csík Basin have important Corncrake (Crex crex) populations, reaching densities of 4.6 calling males per km2, concentrated on the main floodplain (Demeter and Szabó 2005, Demeter et al. 2011). White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) also nests in high densities in settlements adjacent to the floodplain, up to 38 breeding pairs per village (Demeter 1999, Kósa et al. 2002, Demeter and Kelemen unpublished). Both of these birds benefit from the traditional management of the haymeadows in the basin. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) nests in larger tussocky fens (Demeter 2004) which is a rarity in Romania. Other typical rare birds include the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia) and Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana).

In recent years the European Beaver (Castor castor) successfully established itself in the area after a reintroduction 100 km downstream and now it is very widespread in the low parts of the basin (Imecs pers. obs.).

Much less data are available about the fauna of the Csík Mountains. No published data are available on the fish fauna of the upper Tatros River and Kászon river. Typical amphibians are the Carpathian newt (Lissotriton montandoni), Common Frog (Rana temporaria), common toad (Bufo bufo) and Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata) (Demeter and Kelemen 2011).

Typical birds of the Csík Mountains include Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina), Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus), Grey Woodpecker (Picus canus), Woodlark (Lullula arborea), Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) (Sándor and Demeter pers. obs.).

The area is important for large carnivores such as Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), Carpathian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) and Lynx (Lynx lynx) (AVPS 2010).


There is a large number of protected areas in the Csík Basin, and to the south, west and north of the Csík Mountains (Fig. 4). The first nature reserves were designated already in the 1930s. These are small peat fens mainly situated in the southern low altitude part of the basin, and large-sized ones at higher altitudes in the volcanic mountains.

No active nature conservation management has been done on any protected area so far. Several studies show that the protected status did not halt the degradation of most fens and the decline of some species (Kerekes 2003), although it perhaps protected some sites from total destruction.

There were no protected areas in the Csík Mountains until recently, when a Special Protected Area has been established in its western part with the name Munții și Depresiunea Ciucului (ROSPA0034). There are several Sites of Community Interest (SCI) in the neighbouring areas: Tinovul Apa Lina – Honcsok (ROSCI0241), Tinovul Apa Rosie (ROSCI0242), Bazinul Ciucului de Jos (ROSCI0007), Cheile Bicazului – Hasmas (ROSCI0027), Ciomad – Balvanyos (ROSCI0037) (see Fig. 4). There is one International Bird Area (IBA) in this area that covers part of the Csík Mountains and a large part of the Hargita mountains and the Csík Basin, RO046 Depresiunea Ciucului.
At a closer look however, there are a high number of areas with outstanding natural value that have been only recently documented or that are unknown. These include habitats of rare species that are restricted to this area within the country (e.g. Demeter 2005) but also listed habitats and species the distribution of which is not known. For example, there are at least dozen fens with the spectacular Ligularia sibirica in the Csík Mountains that were not known before our studies (Csergő et al. 2011).

Traditional nature conservation approaches (delimitation of nature reserves) are difficult to apply in this area because of the connectivity and large scale of valuable natural habitats. For example, a large number of birds of prey nest in the forested mountains and feed in the agricultural areas of the basin. The Common Frog migrates between the mountain hibernation and feeding areas and breeding areas through streams.

A promising new concept in this respect is the High Nature Value (HNV) Farmland concept (Baldock et al. 1993, Beaufoy et al. 1994, Beaufoy no date). The whole area (except forests) is categorized as HNV farmland, and through the agri-environment scheme farmers (family farms) are encouraged to perform environmentally friendly land use, although it seems that they are not well informed and aware of the rationale and mechanisms of this new system (see Péter 2011).

The HNV concept is appropriate for terrestrial farmland habitats. As highlighted through the Mountain Hay Meadows project (Rodics and Knowles 2011), this area is a very representative site for meadows with high biodiversity managed traditionally for hay production in Transylvania.

The HNV concept does not directly tackle water and forest habitats, which are separated also from the administrative point of view, waters being managed by the Water Authority and forests in this area by the compossessorates or by private owners.

Based on the above, a new nature conservation approach is needed, that strives more to the maintenance (and restoration) of ecological functioning rather than the conservation of rare species (without denying the importance of the latter). This should have at least three major components: comprehensive data collection in the field, information and education of the public and communication between institutions responsible for the management of natural resources.


There is a long list of species, habitats and landscape features that make the Csík Basin and Csík Mountains unique from the nature point of view. Typical species of the basin are connected with wetlands and fens and include glacial relics, with several species reaching their global southern distribution limit here. Typical species of the mountains are connected with forests and grasslands, especially species-rich mountain hay meadows. This is a natural capital that should be better documented, managed and profited from. We propose a new approach in nature conservation that covers the whole landscape, focuses on the ecological health of the landscape rather than „protected areas” and is based on research, education and communication.

Also, we highlight the need to understand, appreciate and perpetuate traditional ecological knowledge and practice of the local rural population.


The authors thank Dr Barbara Knowles for her support and advice, Dr Urák István for information on spiders and Dr Bartos-Elekes Zsombor for advice regarding the usage of toponyms.


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