Preserving Beautiful Biodiversity
How protecting one of the last truly wild landscapes in Europe is saving species while helping communities thrive.
Within the Carpathian Mountain range of Central Romania—the heart of Transylvania—time stands still. The region contains some of Europe’s largest remaining old-growth forests, which surround medieval Saxon villages, small farms traversed by horse-drawn carts, and vibrant hay meadows.
These wild highland meadows, which ripple with wildflowers, butterflies, and more than 200 kinds of birds, are among the most biodiverse in Europe. They are an ark for some of the last of their species that inhabit these mountains, including the spotted eagle, lynx, and grey wolf.
Sylvie Chantecaille and Mehai Barbu in a meadow near Villa Abbatis
A decade ago, Romanian-born Mihai Barbu was visiting his ancestral village in Transylvania’s Hârtibaciu Valley on holiday from the UK, where he worked as a horse trainer. He immediately recognized the beauty and “wealth” of his surroundings—"its nature, its customs, its legends, its people.” But he also saw its fragility: young people had been flocking to the cities for work, leaving behind a frayed agrarian economy based on small-scale “tapestry” farming, and 800-year-old villages built by German Saxons full of decaying churches, monuments, and traditional homes.
In a decision that marked a turning point not just for Mihai but for the valley, he stayed. He negotiated with church authorities to buy a former parish house and to manage a dilapidated 14th-century Cistercian abbey in the town of Apoș, where he built an equestrian center and inn, the Villa Abbatis. With help from an architect friend, he created an NGO, the Villa Abbatis Cultural Association, funded by both ecotourism revenue and private donors, to preserve and restore the area’s patrimonial monuments and traditional clay-roofed architecture.
But soon, Mihai was forced to contend with a greater existential threat to the region. Pressure had been mounting from industrial farming companies looking to clear-cut land for beef production and monocropping. “With so few young people left in the village, the aging population wanted to get rid of their land, which is why agribusiness could get it for almost nothing,” Mihai explains. Tractors replaced horse-drawn carts, loud booms caused birds to abandon their nests, and fences slashed through wildlife corridors, putting species at risk of extinction. As for the remaining small farmer households who had been self-sustaining for generations with a livestock stable, hay barn, and small plot of land behind their house, a traditional way of life was vanishing.
Mihai and his supporters quickly mobilized, buying 40 hectares (which since increased to 50, or 125 acres). They are now working to restore these vital and vibrant wildflower meadows—dotted with nodding sage and thyme, purple flowered hellebore and yellow pheasant’s eye, as well as several species of rare orchids—with better landscape management, recreating a natural habitat for local species and a buffer zone between forests and villages.
“Walking through the hay meadows of Transylvania, one sees that the meadow ecosystem is a complex network of close interrelations between flora and fauna,” says Viktoria Luft, a landscape specialist working with the Villa Abbatis Cultural Association. “The rich larder provided by the meadow in combination with old woodlands and small-scale agriculture creates a mosaic perfect for many species that are threatened or have disappeared in many other countries of Europe.” In addition to the lynx and lesser spotted eagle, these include wolves, brown bears, red deer, and Europe’s most diverse bat population.
Chantecaille founder Sylvie Chantecaille visited the project in spring of last year, and was struck by “the beauty, the incredible biodiversity of the meadows, and the human scale of the tapestry agriculture—you can see it’s exactly how we were meant to farm,” she says. She committed to helping Mihai on this conservation initiative, which has also established a nursery to create a “genetic reservoir” of ancient heirloom varieties of apples and pears. Scientists and volunteers have so far identified more than 100 varieties. In the first year, roughly 600 wild “mother trees” have been planted and 300 have been grafted with these varieties before being moved to Villa Abbatis’ ancient orchard and reintroduced into other parts of Romania.
Not only will this broad undertaking preserve species diversity, but it also preserves the region’s vanishing cultural traditions by creating a local economy for these unusual varieties and their byproducts, which will need enterprising young people to harvest and process. “If you don't create jobs, then you don't get people interested in what you do, and then you are going to be fighting alone,” Barbu says.
Sylvie and her team created a delightful color collection incorporating flowers and crystals found in the fields into the packaging, “bringing the beauty of this extraordinary place that is largely unknown and helping both to restore and preserve for the future this part of Europe at its richest,” Sylvie says. “We have commited to save it while there is still a small window of time.” We are delighted to contribute to the Villa Abbatis Cultural Association’s ongoing efforts with the sales of our Spring 2023 Wild Meadows Eye Quartet.