Agri-Environmental Payments in Harghita County - Do They Have Real Benefits for HNV Grasslands?


AGORA – Working Group for Sustainable Development, Independentei Street, no. 28, Odorheiu Secuiesc, Harghita County, Romania, RO – 53560

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Harghita County, agri-environmental payments, HNV grasslands, subsidies, small-scale farming


Agriculture has been the main landscape forming element in Harghita County, Romania, in the last centuries, a fact that resulted in a very varied mosaic landscape.
The mosaic landscape is home for a complex biodiversity, which can be measured both in plant and animal diversity. Agriculture is represented in this hilly/mountainous area by small size, subsistence and semi-subsistence farms. The local farmers are not specialized in a specific product, they keep livestock (cows, horses, pigs and poultry) and also crops and grasslands in their production.

As a result of the EU accession these small farms are forced to grow and become specialized, or abandon farming, both of which can result in loss of biodiversity. The utilization of EU subsidies is good, a little bit higher than the national average, but we will show in this paper the lack of monitoring activities by the Paying Agencies.

The information of farmers is weak; they didn’t get any specialized information on agri-environmental programmes or on other good practice in the field of environmentally friendly agriculture. The majority of farmers do not have the minimum information on the agri-environmental programme, its goals and practices, the application for it is a tick-box on the internet, so the results are not yet measurable and positive.

There is a real threat of losing the unique floral and faunal biodiversity of these High Nature Value grasslands, due to the fact that every year the number of abandoned fields is growing (Baur, 2006).


Agri-environmental measures are designed to maintain and enhance the environment of rural areas. In the EU farmers are receiving payments – not subsidies in this case – in return for services (which we can call ecological services).

The first agri-environmental measures were designed and created in the early 1980s by member states like the UK and Denmark. Until the 1992 Common Agricultural Policy reform, these measures or programmes were optional for member states, and then they were introduced as “accompanying measures” by the 2078/92 Council Regulation (EC, 2005).

The main idea behind them was that member states can design national, regional or local level agri-environmental measures, adapted to their particular farming systems and environmental conditions.

Beginning in the 1990s in European countries we can distinguish two kinds of measures – strongly related to the main objectives of the system: a) reducing environmental risks, mainly in intensive agricultural production areas (like reduction of fertilizers and pesticide inputs, planting winter cover to reduce nitrate leaching), and b) preserving valuable natural features and landscapes – mainly in  extensive farming systems.
In agri-environment schemes, farmers are paid only if their environmental commitments go beyond Good Farming Practice, so conformation with existing environmental legislation can’t be financed.

Normally the method for implementing this payment system has to begin with the elaboration of a National Agri-environmental Plan or Programme, which will be integrated into the National Rural Development Plan. Farmers’ participation is not compulsory, but if they decide to enter the scheme, they have to sign a contract for at least five years with the managing authority. In some member states farm management plans are elaborated, and the achievements in the contract are periodically controlled by the governing bodies.

After EU accession in 2007 Romania elaborated its first National Rural Development Plan for the 2007-2013 period, and in the final version of this plan we have three main measures:
a) High Nature Value Grasslands – with two packages 1) basic HNV grasslands (€124/ha) and 2) in addition, the traditional farming package (manual scything of the fields) for another €58/ha.
b) Grassland Supporting Important Birds is a pilot measure for Romania (Crex crex management €209/ha, for Lanius minor and Falco vespertinus management €101/ha),
c) Green Cover Crops – the only horizontal measure for Romania (this can apply to farmers from every locality). The green cover crops can be pea, vetch, rape, mustard, lupin, melilot, and should be planted for the winter period for reduction of soil erosion. The amount for this measure is €130/hectare.

The first two packages or measures are zonal, meaning that only selected areas of the country are eligible (MAFRD, 2009), Harghita county being eligible only for the first package. In Romania farmers can enter into agri-environmental schemes simply by putting an x sign on the area-based payment application form.

Harghita County is situated in the Eastern Carpathians, and comprises mainly a low mountain area, with good opportunities for livestock farming.

In this paper we try to examine the choices of farmers from Harghita County related to available agri-environmental measures, due the fact that application for agri-environmental payments is probably easiest in Romania.

We analyzed the relationship between the extent of grasslands and number of cattle in two time horizons (1895 and 2003), since in Harghita County data on grassland area are available.

We can see a decrease of grasslands in the last century – from 280.114 hectares in 1895 to about 266.000 hectares in 2003 – as a result of communist agricultural practice, which tried to convert all lands in arable.

Unfortunately there are no designated Inportant Bird Areas in Harghita County as targets of the second agri-environmental measure, although in several areas of the county there are important populations of the corncrake (Crex crex), which is the target species of the second agri-environmental package.

The main data sources were statistical information of the agricultural census from 1895 made by Hungary (Rotariu, 2003) and the validated 2003 statistical data from Romania for Harghita County (INS, 2010).

For the grassland analyses we used official sources (MAPDR, 2004) and GIS databases (EEA, 2007), using ArcView 3.2 software.

The data regarding the number of farmers as beneficiaries of area-based and agri-environmental payments are based on the webpage of the Paying and Intervention Agency for Agriculture (PIAA) and personal communication from the Harghita County office of the PIAA.


Analyzing the land-use system of the county we can see that grasslands represent the main agricultural land, both for grazing and hay production (Fig. 1). And of course forests also comprise a significant resource. Harghita County has a total of 266.000 ha grasslands, which theoretically could support 140.000 cattle, taking into account the amount of summer grazing and the hay needed for winter.

This fact is reflected also in the number of cattle livestock at the end of the 19th century, when the county has almost double the number in 2003 (see also Fig. 2):

Livestock 1895 2003
cattle 126.940 72.955
horse 23.131 ~ 20.000
ovine 184.745 133.138

Source: Rotariu 2003, INS 2010, personal collection (horses in 2003)

For centuries people in these mountainous areas earned their life support from animal husbandry, and today the main income of rural families still comes from selling the milk and other products of livestock. Several studies conducted in the regions show that the rural population is going through serious problems represented by the aging of the agricultural population and migration of the young generation from rural areas (Csata 2007, Sólyom 2006).

The last decades had a major undesired effect on the agricultural population, consisting of lack of cooperation between farmers, as a result of their negative experiences of socialist state farm organization and operation during the Communist times (between 1958 and 1990).

There is a linkage between the number of livestock and the status of grasslands, because in the last years we can find very many abandoned areas, even close to the villages.

Figure 1: Map of grasslands in Harghita County, limite administrative = administrative limits of the communes, pajisti = grasslands(source: EEA, 2007)

In Harghita County a total number of 28.000 applications were submitted for area-based payments to the PIAA local offices. Due the fact that the agri-environmental payments can be accessed by putting a cross on the sheet, 24.443 farmers asked for the grassland package in 2008, for about 62.000 hectares.

This can be interpreted as an important result, but in fact there is a lack of information, most of the farmers are not aware of the minimal requirements for the environment, although their activity maintains the high nature value of this very diverse landscape.
In spring and autumn in the last three years we documented more than 200 cases of burning the grasslands and stubble, which is prohibited. Those grasslands which are not grazed or haven’t been mowed are not eligible for payment, so farmers burn them, trying to keep them in good condition, in case their field will be examined by the paying agency.

The wrong management of manure is another serious problem, most of the subsistence farms are not equipped with isolated dunghills.

Figure 2: Map of cattle stock in 1895 and 2003 in Harghita County (grey column = stock in 1895, black column = stock in 2003, point dashed area = communes with decrease of cattle stock more than 50% between 1895 and 2003).


The agri-environment payments are not a coherent system in Romania, a profound analysis of the agri-environmental situation is missing and therefore we can expect a serious negative response from the European Commission.

Farmers’ knowledge is very poor; those measures in the National Rural Development Plan which are supposed to solve these educational problems are not accessible for most of the small farmers, who manage most of the lands, and especially the land of highest nature value, mainly in hilly and mountainous areas.

As recommendation we can formulate a county level partnership between PIAA and farmer’s associations for educational actions (especially on agri-environment) and the involvement of universities and NGOs in the monitoring of the agri-environmental packages.


The author is very grateful to Barbara Knowles and László Demeter for proofreading and their valuable comments.


Baur B., Cremene C., Groza Gh., Rakosy L., Schileyko A.A., Baur A., Stoll P., Erhardt A., 2006 – Effects of abandonment of subalpine hay meadows on plant and invertebrate diversity in Transylvania, Romania, Biological Conservation 132 (2006) 261-273

Csata I. – Kiss T., 2007 – Népesedési perspektívák, Kriterion, Cluj Napoca (in Hungarian)

EEA, 2007 – Corine Land Cover 2000 database, European Environmental Agency, Copenhagen, 2007 (, visited 04.05.2010)

European Commission, 2005 – Agri-environmental Measures – Overview on General Principles, Types of Measures and Application, DG Agri, Unit G-4 (, visited on 12.06.2010)

INS, 2010 – Institutul Naţional de Statistică, baza de date TEMPO (, visited 16.06.2010)

Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Rural Development, 2009 – National Rural Development Programme for the 2007-2010 period, consolidated version, December 2009

Ministerul Agriculturii, Pădurilor şi Dezvoltării Rurale, 2004 – Program Naţional de reabilitare a pajiştilor perioada 2004-2008, Bucureşti.

Rotariu T., Semeniuc M. and Mezei E., 2003 – Recensământul Agricol din 1895, Transilvania, vol. 2, Editura Presa Universitară Clujeană, Cluj Napoca, (in Romanian)

Sólyom A., 2006 – The ago-touristic potential of the Martinis-Sanpaul-Badeni area, in: The Homorod Valley, Societatea Ornitologica Romana, Cluj Napoca