The grass is greener on the upper side
Maramures County’s farmers had for centuries tended herds of brown cattle (`Bruna de Maramures´) for meat and dairy products using traditional practices. The cattle, by grazing on high grasslands, had shaped rich meadow ecosystems for a variety of plant, bird and animal species. However, Romania´s accession to the EU in 2007 brought problems. In many cases, local dairy production failed to meet new EU standards for hygiene and animal welfare leading to the closure of farms and dramatic decreases in cow populations. Many traditional grazing activities and their beneficial impacts for semi-managed grasslands and their rich biodiversity ceased.
With the WWF introduction of the new traditional herd, natural grazing in the grasslands resumed. Voluptuous cow appetites in the mountainous plateau led to the restoration of 80 ha of high nature-value sub-alpine grassland. Sixteen calves were also born.
The key to future project success will be the `revolving herd´ -- after five years, Tiplea will pass on the same number of cattle he received to another farmer who will also graze them on grasslands, allowing the herd size to expand over time. The grass will get greener as more animals, farmers and landowners become involved. Two local cattle breeder associations now want to continue the project.
By 2010, the farm and cows will be organically certified. Some of the cows will be slaughtered for meat for sale. Project partners are trying to get the quality, organic `green´ beef a higher market price through promoting a market niche such as linking high quality beef production with landscape conservation.
Thus maintained, the original mosaic landscape of mixed open grasslands, forests and wetlands is not only good for biodiversity – it is also extremely attractive from a tourism point of view, which is one of the economic sectors Maramures is pinning its hopes on for future economic development.
Tiplea is making other personal investments. Besides raising the first herd, he developed a tourism facility linked to his conservation story, investing 280,000 € into accommodations for 14 tourists in a new rural pension. He’s also building a winter shelter for his cows. And WWF is helping him to better access external development funds.
Some new funds will come soon to Maramures, such as subsidies from Romania’s National Rural Development Programme to landowners who demonstrate good agricultural practices on grasslands. These will include annual payments of 124 €/ha for agri-environment measures (e.g. mowing after 1 July or using organic fertilizers) and 58 €/ha for traditional agricultural practices (e.g. manual mowing).
OEMN also contributed to the designation of a new Natura 2000 site in the area through sharing scientific data and raising awareness. The site consists of 19,602 ha of grassland habitats and is partially grazed by sheep, water buffalo and the project’s cows. In the future, farmers contributing to maintaining the site will also be eligible for direct government payments.
With time, the Bruna de Maramures cow will once again become central to the local economy and the conservation of high nature value grassland meadows – generating incomes through withdrawals from the rural area’s natural grass bank and maintaining that capital for the benefit of wildlife, farmers and tourists alike. (More about OEMN Maramures project)