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Smallholdings and semi-natural grasslands in the Romanian Carpathians

Livestock production in Moeciu de Sus: past, present and future?


Bucegi ridge

The early history of Moeciu de Sus is shrouded in mystery due to an absence of documentary evidence dating from before the 18th century. Local historians point to the location of the village on the border of the former principalities of Wallachia and Transylvania. Frequent conflicts and the existence of a ‘no-mans’ land in-between the legally demarcated border on a mountain ridge and the policed border on the road though the mountains lower in the valley could have prevented peasants moving into the area before the 15th and 16th centuries when both principalities became vassals of the Ottoman Empire. If this theory is correct, smallholdings may have existed in the area of present day Moeciu de Sus for at least 600 years.

Over 2800 Romanian mountain villages, including Moeciu de Sus, were not collectivised during the communist era. The rough terrain and the remote and sometimes dispersed settlement pattern of villages in these areas made the implementation of this brutal policy impractical. Mountain households effectively retained ownership of their land but were obliged to transfer the majority of their produce to the state: 800 litres of milk for every milk cow owned (a significant proportion of the 1000 litres of milk an average cow in the village annually produces) one kilogram of wool per sheep and calf carcasses were exchanged for maize meal.

Older members of the community verify that a household member would have sought paid employment even before the advent of communism. Men from Moeciu de Sus often worked as shepherds or foresters. In most cases it is unlikely that a family would have chosen to be solely dependent on their smallholding although these have provided a constant in livelihood strategies, acting as a safety net in times of insecure employment. During communism, this pattern of combining smallholding based production and ‘off-smallholding’ employment continued with one or more household members securing jobs in the industrial, agricultural and forestry sectors.

It remained worthwhile for mountain households to continue to work their smallholdings even though the state provided secure employment opportunities and despite the severe production quotas. The smallholding produce remaining after the state had received ‘its’ share was used to bolster the meagre supplies that could be bought in shops. At the same time, the theoretical abolition of private land ownership and the severe penalties imposed on those with larger holdings maintained the conditions for the perpetuation of smallholding based production in the mountain regions.


Tourists milk cow lambs

The collapse of communism in 1989 resulted in the widespread loss of jobs in the forestry, agricultural and industrial sectors and rural households increasingly relied on the safety-net of their smallholdings. Mountain smallholdings continue to retain an important role in enabling families to produce food for their own table even though the economic environment of Romania is significantly more stable than it was in the early 1990s. The smallholding continues to buffer insecure employment opportunities and the high cost (relative to income) of shop bought food.

The wider area surrounding Moeciu de Sus is a popular tourist destination and one of the closest mountain areas to the capital Bucharest. Many villagers have secured employment in local guest houses and hotels or have opened their own tourist accommodation in which they serve their smallholding produce. One of the local cheeses brânza wrapped in pine bark is much sought after by Romanian tourists. This is becoming harder to source as the labour needed to collect and prepare the pine bark is high and plastic alternatives have become more convenient.

In Moeciu de Sus smallholdings are typically less than 3 hectares in size. All of the smallholding land is dedicated to the production of hay. Livestock are communally herded on pastures during the summer months by shepherds specifically employed for this task. Cheese is made on site at the summer pastures and is distributed to the livestock owners later in the summer.

Two to four cows per smallholding is a typical herd size in Moeciu de Sus depending on the area of land owned and the labour capacity of the household. In the past most households also kept a small flock of sheep but this is becoming less common since the loss of communist markets for wool. The sheep are mostly of the generalist Tigaia breed but professional shepherds, of which there are several in the village, may also own a number of the hardier Turcana race which are a wool breed. Cattle are a mixture of breeds, including the Bruna and the Baltata Româneasca. Milk cows typically produce around 10 litres per day at the height of the milk production period.

Only 20 households (less than 10% of all households in the village) in 2006 sold milk to the local collector (also based in the village and supplying a milk processing unit in Brasov). Reasons given for not selling milk to the collector include insufficient surplus and the greater convenience and higher price that can be generated by ad hoc local sales. Informal networks of milk sales exist in the village but in general, most households keep the majority of their produce. A minority of families specialise in sheep production and professional shepherding and sell cheese both to villagers, tourists and in some cases, in more formal networks in town markets.


Abandoned barn

The input of labour needed to manage a smallholding is high and frequently arduous, particularly in the depths of winter when temperatures may reach as low as -25 C. As employment opportunities become more stable and financially rewarding, it is likely that many people will become less willing to work their smallholdings. Smallholding work is the norm in the village at present and to manage meadows and livestock well is still seen as the mark of a ‘good’ family. This attitude may switch to smallholding work being seen as ‘backwards’ should many villagers abandon raising livestock due to increasing financial prosperity.

Abandonment is a more likely scenario than the intensification of livestock production in Moeciu de Sus although a combination of the two could potentially occur. The scope for intensification is limited by the steep terrain, climate, the small size of parcels of meadow and the fragmented distribution of holding land. The trend of converting meadow to pasture is already in evidence in the village with people renting land to shepherds seeking extra grazing resources. Many low lying meadows in the valley floor have been sold for the construction of holiday homes or guesthouses; a trend has recently started to occur on some of the higher meadows.

Older villagers frequently comment on the increase in the number of meadows that are no longer mown and suggest that abandonment is already occurring, generally in the circumstance of the death of an elderly owner whose children are unable or unwilling to take over the land. Shepherds are also abandoning their profession or are seeking better paid shepherding work in countries like Italy. The shepherds that rent the summer pastures all report how difficult it is to hire skilled men, many of which can earn equivalent incomes for shorter hours and better conditions in, for example, the building trade.

These observations by villagers in Moeciu de Sus reinforce the point that whilst smallholding based production in the Romanian Carpathians can be described as having a high nature value, it is questionable as to how much longer it will continue to have a high social value.

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Online: http://www.efncp.org/hnv-showcases/romanian-carpathian-mountains/smallholdings/moeciu-de-sus/
Date: 2024/05/24
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