Romania: A Butterfly Elysium
Romania holds 180 butterfly species (Van Swaay et al. 2010, European Red List of Butterflies). Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s Andrew Power describes his experiences there in 2016, and the wonderful habitats that support other wildlife groups. Brian’s report provides a glimpse of what Ireland has lost.
I travelled to Romania this summer for the first time to join the Operation Wallacea Transylvania team. Operation Wallacea is a network of academics from European and North American universities, who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research expeditions in several different countries. This research is supported by students who join the programme helping us collect valuable data on wildlife as well as carrying out their own bits of research.
I have always been a wildlife nut, growing up in Ireland, birdwatching and catching butterflies since I can remember. Naturally, I decided to study Zoology in Trinity College Dublin and in 2012 I completed a Masters of Research in the University of Nottingham in Conservation Biology. Since then I’ve worked on numerous projects from remote tropical islands to the high mountains of the South Sinai in Egypt. Most of my work has focused on birds and butterflies and so it was no surprise that I joined the Opwall team as…. farm survey leader!
The biodiversity of the Tarnava Mare is breath-taking. Stepping foot in Richis (the first Opwall village) in Transylvania for the first time was like travelling back in time. It was a bittersweet moment for me. On the one hand, it was amazing to see this extraordinary landscape up close but on the other hand it really emphasised how much wilderness Europe has lost to development and intensive agriculture. This is what Ireland should be like. Tourists visit my home to see the green fields, but those fields are barren and empty (for the most part). The fields and woods here are alive, you can hear the difference before you see it; buzzing crickets, singing Corncrakes, hooting owls and barking deer. Why is the area so special? The farming methods here are Medieval, unchanged for centuries, non-intensive and not commercial. That’s why I decided to do farm surveys; I wanted to meet the people who make this a haven for the birds and butterflies (and everything else) and see their methods up close. The opportunity to be the bird ringing assistant to Ben also lured me to the project!
I’m used to working in isolated environments with no people and lots of wildlife so it was strange to lead students around Romanian Farms. At the farms, we were greeted with smiles and I was pleased to get a glimpse into the rural culture (and agriculture) of Transylvania. We interviewed the farmers about their practices, the size of their land and their plans so that we could see if their way of life and this landscape is under threat. The biggest threats to this environment are land abandonment, as people leave in search of a new livelihood, and intensive agriculture. It’s a huge temptation for farmers to abandon traditional methods in favour of larger more commercially viable farms. Luckily Fundatia Adept is supporting farmers using traditional methods by helping them be more competitive on the European market and promote their produce. They achieve this through the establishment of farmers’ markets, merchandising workshops, education and helping them obtain EU grants (and much more). It’s our job to collect as much data as we can to support the local farmers and Fundatia Adept in safeguarding the future of this outstanding area. We want them to be proud of their heritage and environment and for them to make some money from it too!
However, farm surveys didn’t last long for me, 2 days in fact! Unfortunately, James O’Neill the butterfly survey leader had to leave the project prematurely and I stepped in. Luckily, I love butterflies; it was my first Zoological passion…. after dinosaurs! I’m a member of Butterfly Conservation Ireland, regularly take part in Butterfly monitoring schemes and for my Masters I carried out the first ever study of on one of the rarest butterflies in the world, the Sinai Hairstreak (see Andrew’s research on the Sinai Hairstreak in the Annual Report 2015). Transylvania is a Lepidopterist’s dream, on my first day as butterfly survey leader I saw more species than you can see in an entire Irish Summer, jackpot. Every day we conduct six butterfly transects through the wildflower meadows. Butterflies are a brilliant group to monitor for two reasons; firstly, they are an indicator species. Butterflies are intrinsically linked to their hostplant (what their caterpillars feed on) so the presence of certain species indicates the presence of certain plants and therefore can tell us the habitat quality. The more species of butterflies you have the better the habitat is. They are also easy to catch and easy to identify (mostly!) so they are the perfect species to monitor. We’ve been walking the same transects for the last three years (when the project began) and this will allow us to monitor population trends of butterflies and the habitat quality of the region. We have 12 transects in each village and we visit seven villages during the summer.
Butterflies are most active during the heat of the day so we survey them from 10:00am to 16:00pm. While it can be tiring being out in the sun all day (especially for a ginger bearded Irishman), it is hugely rewarding. By the end of the field season we notched up an incredible 87 species, there are simply too many butterfly highlights for me to list in this report. Perhaps the most obvious thrill was regularly encountering Scarce and European Swallowtails, the largest and most impressive butterflies in Europe. Seeing the intricate patterns of their wings up close was a real treat.
In Ireland, we have 4 species of Fritillary. I was lucky enough to see the Pearl-bordered Fritillary for the first time in the Burren before I left for Romania. It had been described to me as a flying jewel and it really is. Most Fritillaries have a brilliant orange colouration, often with a splash of silver on the underside, so it was amazing to see 17 different Fritillary species! It was a constant challenge identifying and learning all the new butterflies on the spot, there were just so many! I thoroughly enjoyed watching and getting to know all the different species, I now know that the Large Chequered Skipper skips as it flies and that Common and Hungarian Gliders do in fact glide but the final butterfly highlight that I will describe here was seeing the Large Blue. I’ve grown up learning about how the Large Blue became extinct in the UK in 1979 (despite 50 years of effort to stop the decline). Through the work of some dedicated scientists and wildlife conservationists it was reintroduced and the Large Blue flies again once more in the UK in their thousands. One of the main reasons it became extinct was a failure to understand the complexity of its life-cycle. The Large blue caterpillars can only survive in the nest of one species of red ant. The caterpillars essentially trick the red ants into believing they are one of their own grubs, and they are carried underground into the ants’ nest. The imposter caterpillar spends the next 10 months feeding on the ant grubs before emerging as a butterfly. These ants disappeared as the land use changed in the UK and without the ants the butterflies soon disappeared. This was the vital piece of information needed to reintroduce the Large Blue. This story helped inspire me to become a scientist; it revealed the complexity, wonder and sensitivity of nature. Not only that but it proved that wildlife conservation could sometimes be a success. When I caught my first Large Blue I was ecstatic, I showed the group and told them the saga of the iconic butterfly in the UK before letting it fly free.
There is so much to hear and see as well as the butterflies. We’ve seen Grass, Aesculapian and Smooth snake, numerous frogs and toads, eagles, White Storks, dozens of Red-backed Shrikes, Bear tracks (some lucky people have seen the real thing!), deer and a huge array of wildflowers. The smell of wild mint and lavender completes the assault on the senses but seeing hundreds of butterflies, from the spectacular Swallowtails and Fritillaries to the more common Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns, gliding over the meadows was truly unforgettable.
It’s not only the wildlife that is special about Transylvania it’s also the people. I’m used to working in extreme isolation away from people with only the animals for company. Last summer I spent four months living in a lighthouse, on an island the size of a football pitch, with one other person to protect 10,000 breeding Terns! The local Romanians have been so welcoming, catering to all our needs no matter how crazy they are. My fellow survey leaders and translators are an incredible bunch of people; between us we have experts in moths, bats, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, wildflowers, Romanian culture, mushrooms, traditional woodcraft and much more. There is always something to look at here. It’s impossible to be bored. But it’s the students, research assistants and dissertation student that really brings the place to life. I’ve really enjoyed the enthusiasm and energy of all the visitors here, watching them chase manically after butterflies in the name of science after only picking up a net for the first time is always great fun. You really can’t beat the expedition atmosphere.