the meadow-steppe habitats of Transylvania


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from the meadow-steppe habitats remained such a few patches that they are not yet recognized as a distinctive type in Romania and EU

What is a meadow-steppe grassland? 

In the forest-steppe areas, which exist as zonal climatically determined belts between forests and steppes but can be found also as islands completely surrounded by forests or steppes the ladscape is a mixture of forests and grasslands. These grasslands which live on their specific soils, characteristic for the forest-steppe's open fields - deep and very fertile argic and haplic chernozems and phaeozems - are very different from the much drier grasslands of the steppes or from the secondary grasslands that result after permanent deforestation in the forest areas. They have a specific structure, their specific soils and especially their peculiar species. The Russian naturalists were the first to recognize and name them - 'lugovae stepi' ('pratostepa' in Latin and Romanian, 'Wiesensteppe' in German, 'meadow-steppe' in English). All these names mean in fact 'hayfield steppe' and are illustrative for the good high quality fodder they provide, their use and their general aspect. A very good description of these grasslands in a EU language (German) can be found in Walter (1969) - Die Vegetation der Erde vol. 2, Dresden.

The steppe xeric grasslands exist in the forest-steppe landscape only on sunny abrupt slopes and clines. In concerning forests, apart from the fact that also the forests from the forest-steppe are not the same at all with the forests from the main forestry belts, seemingly and usually in the forest-steppe the forested patches are in a certain equilibrium with the grassland patches and they also are localted on different soils.

Where are the meadow-steppe habitats to be found in Transylvania?

Only in the forest-steppe areas of the Transylvanian Depression which circumpass the driest part of the region with 450-600 mm average rainfall / year. It is easier to identify their former places on soil maps - when a shaded large slope, a plateau or a floodplain is covered with chernozems and phaeozems, this was a place covered not by a forest as a natural habitat, but by a meadow-steppe grassland. Identifying them nowadays across Transylvania is a problem of luck - only a few remained and preserving them will be a great challenge for the regional naturalists.

Which is their structure?

Fig, 1 -The structure of a meadow-steppe grassy habitat from Transylvania on a 'wavy' relief provided by ancient stabilized landslides. The larger mounds (like the one figured above in the middle of the slope) are often present and they are produced in some cases by massive landslides (in this case they should be called scientifically 'glimeas') or they are mound tombs of some ancient civilizations like Cotofeni calcolithic culture ('tumuls'). Please take into account that the vegetal associations Clematido-Avenuletum pubescentis and Serratulo-Calagrostietum epigeii are not yet officially described. Until them they should be inluded into the much larger and trivial context of Poo-Festucetum pratensis and Calamagrostietum epigeii.

Why are they so rare?

Because they all are installed mainly on deep chernozems and phaeozems (soils) with very fertile rich in humus mollic and even voronic horizons which are very fertile and even phreatic humid. This makes them the most fertile soils in the world. Therefore it should be clear that almost all the meadow-steppe developed on floodplains, the top of fluvial terraces and on less inclined smooth shaded slopes are now croplands. The ones developed on landslide slopes with a monticular 'wavy' relied could not be plowed so they are mostly used as cattle and sheep pastures which ruderalized them totally making them almost irrecognoscible (in the worst cases due to intense walking) even the ruderalized natural grassy phytocenoses were replaced by the coverage of Lolio-Trifolietum repentis, the vegetation characteristic for the verge of the roads).

Nonetheless most if the meadow-steppe grassland habitats that survived today in Transylvania in various stages of degradation are linked to this late kind of morphology - the landsliding wavy shaded slopes.  Here, in such places the ancient communities of the old traditional Transylvanian villages (but also of the cities) from the forest-steppe areas usually placed their hayfields (see fig. 2 below). After the first world war a lot of traditional hayfields around the villages were sacrificed and transformed into pastures - this because the new science of agronomy provided the villagers with the new fodder crops technology  -Medicago sativa, Trifolium pratense, Onobrychis arenaria, Avena sativa, fodder Zea mays and so on. In this way a huge thesaurus of Transylvanian biodiversity and one of the most characteristic components of the natural Transylvanian landscape was almost completely lost.

The single case known in Transylvania when the meadow-steppe survived on flat land in a floodplain is in Sibiu Depression (especially east from Ruscior village), but they are at the very limit of their existence. In Banat, west from the city of Faget and around the village of Zervesti and probably in other places along the upper valleys of Bega and Bistra nice meadow-steppe on flat floodplains survived. In Brasov Depression which is geographically considered a part of the Oriental Carpathians there are still splendid small patches of meadow-steppe around Miclosoara in the floodplain of the mighty river Olt.

Why are they so precious?

Because they are natural ecosystems, primary and not secondary grasslands resulted after a permanent deforestation. In contrast with mesic and mesohygrophyle secondary grasslands which stand on the forest Luvisols and Cambisols that were developed under forests, these grasslands stand on deep chernozems and phaeozems which are typical for the grasslands from the forest-steppe landscapes - and these are the meadow-steppes. Their biodiversity is very high, they contain a lot of rare species and their invertebrate world is yet unknown. They are a part of the former natural post-glacial Transylvanian landscape which today is almost completely lost.

Fig.2 - The traditional cathegories of land use within the land borders of a Transylvanian village. Nonetheless this structure was found also in the administrative perimeter of the cities, like Cluj and Sibiu where these sectors were of course, much larger. In these towns until the beginning of the XXth century anumal breeders were a large part of the urban population.Therefore the most extended and today yet best preserved patches of meadow-steppe grasslands are to be found in the former perimeters of the hayfields which belong to the above mentioned cities.

Which are their characteristic species and stages of degradation?

A well preserved transylvanian meadow-steppe grassland will be recognized firstly by having massive populations of Clematis integrifolia (not only isolated or scattered individuals). This beautiful species was common in this once very widespread component of the Transylvanian former natural landscape. Large populations of Galium boreale / rubioides, Clematis recta, Centaurea triumfettii ssp. axillaris are also characteristic. The presence of a large number of Laserpitium latifolium  and Euphorbia polychroma which are neither rare species nor charactieristic ones for meadow-steppe grasslands can also be considered a 'healthy' siign.for the preservation of the grassy ecosystem.

In the first stage of degradation the sheep grazing is allowed by the owners during the late autumn (september-november) and in early spring (march-april). More recently the sheep grazing is permitted also during winter (this is the case of Straja Mare site), that means between september and april (especially for the herds owned by Arab and Turk residents established in Transylvania but also for the owners from around Sibiu which come with their herds here). In this case we will remark a clear invasion of ruderals, the populations of Daucus carota, Dipsacus laciniatus, Carduus acanthoides, Inula britannica, Plantago lanceolata, Pimpinella saxifraga, Erigeron canadensis become larger and larger and than uniformly spread across the grassland. In the well preserved ecosystems these ruderals are present just by accident. Along with the increase of the intensity of the grazing the native grass Thinopyrum intermedium which is subordinate in the original grasslands becomes more and more frequent and in the final stages it will be dominant on very large surfaces. Also Arrhenatherum elatius, Calamagrostis epigeios and Phragmites australis seems to be favored by an increased intensity of grazing but in much humid places. A problem with these graminean species favored by seasonal grazing is that all are very tall, double and more than the average height of the original meadow-steppe grasslands. At higher densities of them many species of herbs will be overwhelmed and presumably the habitat structure of many invertebrates will be degraded. At the same time the local populations of Clematis integrifolia, Clematis recta, Centaurea triumfettii ssp. axillaris, Euphorbia polychroma  get broken in smaller and smaller fragments, then the species will be found only as isolated individuals followed then by their total local extinction.

Much ruderalized are the grasslands which are used during the entire spring, summer and autumn as cattle or sheep pastures. In this stage the humid places are invaded by ruderals of a 'heavier' cathegory like Artemisia absinthium, Artemisia vulgare, Xanthium strumarium, Rubus caesius, Carduus acanthoides, Cirsium lanceolatum, Cirsium furiens, Cirsium arvense, Pastinaca sativa, Daucus carota will become extremely widespread, Chaerophyllum temulum, etc. The mesic-mesoxeric places will have a much lesser ruderal load but they will become mcuh drier and will be strongly depleted of species. Also there will be a strong increase in the number of the grass Agrostis tenuis which is also totally sibordinate in the original meadow-steppe grasslands so large spaces will be covered by the association Agrostio tenuis-Festucetum rupicolae. In the very final stages, if the walking and grazing of the cattles is extremely intense  in the meadow-steppe grassland nuclei of the 'walking' ruderal vegetation Lolio-Trifolietum repentis will form which will gradually will replace the whole original plant cover. This is not a matter of concern for agronomers becauae both the dominant species are good fodder herbs but it is a total destruction of the original vegetation from the point of view of naturalists.

This kind of 'managing' the hayfields by allowing the sheep grazing during the cold season was in our oppinion introduced only after the first world war and especially the second when the villagers were convinved by the newly formed highly educated class of agronomic engineers that this would be very useful in increasing the biomass of the grasses by enrichening the soil in nutrients. In fact this increases only the number of opportunistic and nitrophile ruderals with hard fibrous stems and which are frequently spiny. deteriorating the quality of the hay. it seems that the old traditional farmers from ancient times knew very well this fact that is yet ignored still by many high educated even academic agronomers which yet sustain that intense grazing is a factor which increases biodiversity, In concerning the diversity of the ruderal species - they are absolutely right.

Which are the rare species that have their existence compulsory linked to the existence of meadow-steppe habitats?

Bulbocodium vernum, Adonis volgensis, Serratula lycopifolia, Serratula wolffii, Paeonia tenuifolia, Verbascum nigrum many invertebarates, the mammal Spalax leucodon.

Why they will dissapear very soon and are at the very limit of their existence?

A great matter of concern for the so few remained well preserved or quite well preserved meadow-steppe grasslands is the fact that with the new generations the traditional way of managing the land around villages get completely lost. The old inhabitants of the villages which had their souls and education linked with this traditional rural management are dying now and their followers are now accustomed to live mostly in towns, do not breed cattles anymore and do not need the hay from old hayfileds provided by the meadow-steppe grasslands. The fodder for the winters however comes now from the fodder crops. Therefore the old hayfields circumpassing the old meadow-steppe grasslands are of no use now and will be converted into sheep pastures. At Straja Mare, Cocosu, Fanatele Clujului more and more surfaces are rent or bought by the industrial sheep breeders of arab, turk, sibian or another origin. The rent for 1 ha at Boju / year is somewhere between 200-300 RON. At Fanatele Clujui a hayfield owner refused an offer of 200 RON / year for 10 ha. Nonetheless at Cocosu if the hayfields remain not mowed after late july the sheep owners in the pastures nearby will automatically enter with their animal herds within the meadow-steppe grasslands.

Which is the best thing to do?

Of course, all the sites listed and presented below should immediately declared NATURA 2000 sites. There are populations of some prioritary species inside them like Echium russicum, Crambe tataria, Serratula lycopifolia, etc and this would be sufficient. the  meadow-steppe grassland plant associations should be immediately properly scientifically published and this type of habitat should be recognized as existant and extremely threatened - and so enlisted among the prioritary one sat the EU level.

The seasonal sheep grazing should be immediately removed from the areas. It is interesting that mowing and the grazing provided by the doe Capreolus capreolus (also a prioritary species at EU level) which find here a very good refuge during hot summers seem to be sufficient to maintain the equilibrium in the phytocenoses. The owners and local communities must be paid from various EU sources for maintaining the traditional way of land use - hayfields - for these meadow-steppe grasslands

 Which are the most representative sites?

The files which describe the precise location of each site on Google Earth are provided on each of the pages below. Please add the '.kmz' extension to the name of the files after donloading and then open them with Google Earth. if you want to transfer them into your field GPS unit please transform them into '.gpx' files by using a software package like Global Mapper.

Fanatele Clujului - Valea Calda

Fanatele Clujului - southern part

Fanatele Clujului - Margau

Fanatele Cojocnei - Straja Mare

Fanatele Visei - Dealul Sarata

Fanatele Botenilor - Bota Mare valley (a natural reservation)

Fanatele Oroiului

Fanatele Lunei de Jos - Cocosu

Fanatele Rascrucilor

Fanatele Rusciorului

Fanatele Miclosoarei

Fanatele Pietroasei (Ceagzului) - a very special habitat on gypsum

Lost habitats

Unfortunately in the last ten years we witnessed the continuous degradation and ruderalization and even plowing of some meadow-steppe grassland habitats

Fanatele Bojului - upper Valea Florilor

Fanatele Soporului

Fanatele de la Padurea Bisericii - Cojocna




















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