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Babai, D., B. Jánó, and Z. Molnár. 2021. In the trap of interacting indirect and direct drivers: the disintegration of extensive, traditional grassland management in Central and Eastern Europe. Ecology and Society 26(4):6.

In the trap of interacting indirect and direct drivers: the disintegration of extensive, traditional grassland management in Central and Eastern Europe

1Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of Ethnology, Budapest, Hungary, 2Valea Rece, Lunca De Jos, Harghita County, Romania, 3Centre for Ecological Research, Institute of Ecology and Botany, Vácrátót, Hungary


Micro-scale management of cultural landscapes with species-rich grasslands requires the operation of extensive, traditional land-use systems. These social-ecological systems are under increasing pressure of interacting drivers that impact on farmers’ individual decisions and force them to make trade-offs. We aimed to reveal the local understanding of driver interactions and related trade-offs focusing on a key element of a traditional social-ecological system. We studied the time of hay-mowing using participatory observation (105 field days), semi-structured interviews (n = 85), and focus group discussions (n = 2), analyzing the interacting IPBES-defined drivers that influence the choice of the time of mowing and related trade-offs in a small-scale community in a mountainous landscape (Gyimes, Transylvania, Romania) from the 1950s to the present. Local farmers perceived a number of direct and indirect drivers, as ecological, socio-cultural, economic, and political changes affected the optimal and actual time of mowing and increased the number of trade-offs. The most important factors were (1) the quality of the hay; (2) long-term yield stability by ensuring seed ripening, and (3) qualifying for financial support from agri-environment-climate schemes. Direct drivers influenced the phenology of vegetation and thus the time of mowing, while indirect social, cultural, and political drivers only impacted on the latter. The complexity of driver and trade-off interactions increased through time making adaptation more difficult. While farmers were navigating through the increased complexity, an informal social institution that previously optimized the work forces of farms gradually disappeared. The cumulative effects of drivers and trade-offs decreased the economic and social viability of the system. Our results suggest that the local community’s adaptive capacity has been drastically weakened. We argue that more flexible and adaptive regulations are needed to assure the continuity and ongoing adaptation of this and other Eastern-Central-European, centuries-old but still existing traditional management systems, which created and maintain high nature-value cultural landscapes.
Key words: agri-environment-climate schemes; Carpathians; cultural landscapes; land-use change; Natura 2000; qualitative approach; time of mowing


European cultural landscapes, as high-nature-value farmlands, are diverse habitat mosaics with a large proportion of semi-natural vegetation, possessing outstanding cultural and nature conservation values (Plieninger et al. 2006, Fischer et al. 2012, Lieskovský et al. 2014). Sustaining cultural landscapes requires small-scale farmer communities operating extensive, traditional land-use systems (Poschlod et al. 1998). These land-use systems are locally adapted and are characterized by low-intensity practices (low agrochemical input and machinery) and a reliance on the intensive input of human labor, and they manage all the natural resources and habitats important for the local communities (Bignal and McCracken 2000, Plieninger et al. 2006, Babai and Molnár 2014, Dorresteijn et al. 2015, Sutcliffe et al. 2015a, McGinlay et al. 2017). Recently, nature conservation has made attempts to model and take over the role of previous extensive, traditional land-use practices as a means of maintaining valuable cultural landscapes (Plieninger et al. 2006, Dahlström et al. 2013, Biró et al. 2019, Molnár et al. 2020). Particular scientific and socio-political attention should therefore be devoted to the traditional land-use systems that still operate sporadically in order to learn more about how they function.

Extensive, traditional land-use systems with diverse functions (agricultural production, the maintenance of biodiversity, social coherence, and cultural dimensions; Sutcliffe et al. 2015b), are affected by a large number of direct and indirect drivers (MacDonald et al. 2000, Henle et al. 2008, Balázsi et al. 2019). Direct drivers, e.g., climate change or land-use changes, are natural and anthropogenic pressures directly affecting the functioning of biological components of social-ecological systems, e.g., biodiversity or ecosystem processes. Economic, demographic, cultural, etc. changes are regarded as indirect drivers, influencing formal and informal social institutions, and affecting direct drivers as well (Díaz et al. 2015). The impact of these drivers is often compounded, although conversely, they may also cancel each other out; they are difficult to separate and are often hidden or delayed (Nelson et al. 2006, Hanspach et al. 2014, Elbakidze et al. 2018). These drivers have led to a significant decline in extensive land-use systems across Europe (MacDonald et al. 2000). Changes are usually binarily interpreted, i.e., abandonment and/or intensification of extensive management (Bignal and McCracken 2000, MacDonald et al. 2000, Dahlström et al. 2013, Sutcliffe et al. 2015b, Lasanta et al. 2017), coupled with reduced biodiversity (Poschlod and Wallis de Vries 2002, Myklestad and Sætersdal 2004, Hilpold et al. 2018).

Certain extensive, traditional land-use systems in Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) have been affected, but not extremely polarized by the above drivers, or have been revived since the fall of socialism (especially in Transylvania, Romania: Kuemmerle et al. 2009, Mikulcak et al. 2013, Hanspach et al. 2014, Balázsi et al. 2019). Landscape conditions, poor economic opportunities, post-communist agricultural land policies (e.g., land restitution), and, to an extent, respect for and connectedness to the traditional farming mentality (prioritized mainly by older generations of farmers) were the main causes of the survival or revival of extensive, traditional land-use systems in Transylvania (Dahlström et al. 2013, Babai and Molnár 2014, Balázsi et al. 2019). Such systems were often sustained in isolated, mainly hilly and mountainous regions (Solymosi 2011, Öllerer 2013, Hanspach et al. 2014, Sutcliffe et al. 2015a, Hartel et al. 2016), where animal husbandry and extensive management of species-rich semi-natural hay meadows and pastures were the most important pillars of local agriculture (Dahlström et al. 2013). The maintenance of species-rich hay meadows as biodiversity hotspots (Väre et al. 2003, Wilson et al. 2012, Sutcliffe et al. 2015b) and traditional grassland management sustaining high-nature-value grasslands was a cultural and nature conservation objective of European significance, e.g., Natura 2000-network, agri-environment-climate schemes (AECS; Keenleyside et al. 2014, Sutcliffe et al. 2015a, b).

One of the most important elements of extensive, traditional grassland management is the mowing of meadow hay, in particular the decision on the time of mowing (Humbert et al. 2012, Babai and Molnár 2014, Babai et al. 2015). Time of mowing has an effect on the plant species composition of the hay meadows (Blažek and Lepš 2015), invertebrate (Humbert et al. 2010) and vertebrate diversity, e.g., ground-nesting birds (Faria et al. 2016), and on the control of invasive species (Humbert et al. 2012, Szépligeti et al. 2018). For these reasons, the decision on the time of mowing is strictly controlled by numerous, centralized regulations (state- and EU-level legislation). This is despite the fact that drivers determining the choice of the time of mowing, the trade-offs faced by farmers, for example, in relation to the time of mowing (and the resulting compromises they have to make), and the socio-cultural aspects of rural communities and individual farming decisions are all insufficiently studied issues (cf. Kun et al. 2019). Legislation passed without a deeper understanding may have a negative influence on the functioning of the local social-ecological system (Burton and Paragahawewa 2011), and harms local farming interests and values, while conflicts arise between nature conservationists and local farmers (Molnár et al. 2016).

In order to implement and shape regulations that are adapted to the local context, and to increase the cultural and economic sustainability of extensive, traditional farming, it is necessary to gain deeper knowledge of the social-ecological system that is to be regulated, the direct and indirect drivers that impact on the system, and the local understanding of these effects (Burton and Paragahawewa 2011, Hanspach et al. 2014, Babai et al. 2015). We examined all this in a typical cultural landscape maintained by a small-scale farming community living in the Gyimes region (Eastern Carpathians, Transylvania, Romania), as an ideal social-ecological model with an extensive, traditional grassland-management system, which has experienced substantial ecological, social, cultural, economic, and political changes in recent years.

Our objectives were to examine the following:

  1. the local understanding of the indirect and direct drivers determining the time of mowing of hay meadows and of the change in the time of mowing, in three time periods from the second half of the 20th century until the present day,
  2. the local understanding of the trade-offs and compromises related to the time of mowing and to the quality and quantity of hay,
  3. the change in the informal system of social institutions related to mowing (and to the time of mowing).

We emphasize the escalating complexity of interactions between direct and indirect drivers, and social-ecological systems operating extensive, traditional land management in a CEEC-region, where small-scale farmers face serious difficulties. We strove to highlight the vulnerability of social-ecological systems and small-scale farming, and to warn of the impracticalities of the regulatory environment.


Study area

We conducted our research in the Gyimes (in Romanian: Ghimeş) region of Eastern Transylvania, in the settlement of Gyimesközéplok (Lunca de Jos) - Hidegségpataka (Valea Rece), N 46.3722º-E 25.5724º, Eastern Carpathians, Romania (Fig. 1). The study area covered approximately 90 km² in a mountainous cultural landscape (800-1400 m a.s.l.; Fig. 2a-d). The total population of the studied settlement is 2340 people (Erdélystat Statistics, The population has been relatively stable since the 1950s (Ilyés 2007). Semi-subsistence mountain agriculture is typical in the studied community, whose main pillar is dairy farming. According to our estimates, around 95% of families are involved in this form of agriculture, either as full-time farmers or in addition to a different type of main occupation. The average size of farms in Gyimes is 3.8 ha (Sólyom et al. 2011).

The climate is montane/boreal, with a mean annual temperature of 4–6 ºC and annual precipitation of 700–1200 mm (Nechita 2003, Pálfalvi 2010). Because of the landscape and climate conditions, cattle are kept indoors for approximately seven months of each year, consuming, according to the estimates of local farmers, approximately 2.5–3 tonnes of fodder per animal unit (mainly fibrous hay) each winter. For this reason, grassland management in the Gyimes region is optimized chiefly for the quantity and quality of the hay (Babai and Molnár 2014). Hay is grown on semi-natural meadows developed on the site of former spruce forests (acidophilous Picea abies dominated forests; Babai et al. 2014). The study area is characterized nowadays by 29.4% forest cover, 65.6% grasslands (hay meadows and pastures), 1.1% arable land, and 3.9% other uses, e.g. built environment (Erdélystat Statistics,

High nature value semi-natural grasslands are mostly species-rich mesophilous grasslands (Trisetum flavescens hay meadows), highly diverse mountainous acidofrequent grasslands (Festuca rubra hay meadows), and species-rich Nardus swards, which local farmers use as hay meadows or as pastures (Babai and Molnár 2014). Based primarily on their spatial location, and on the type or intensity of management, farmers in Gyimes distinguish between three types of hay meadows: inner (i.e., inlying) valley-floor meadows, inner (i.e., inlying) foothill meadows, and outer (i.e., outlying) mountain hay meadows (Fig. 3; Babai and Molnár 2014, Kun et al. 2019). Each type has its own distinct vegetation and species composition, and these significant differences are clearly perceived by local farmers (Babai and Molnár 2016, Kun et al. 2019). Until recently, the extensive and traditional grassland management in Gyimes relied largely on the physical power of humans and draft animals, with mechanization mostly occurring in the form of single-axle mower machines (Babai and Molnár 2014). The 2010s also saw the appearance of second-hand finger-wheel hay rakes and self-loading hay wagons (Fig. 4a-f).

Historical drivers affecting grassland management since the 18th century

The history of the land-use that significantly affected the vegetation of the studied cultural landscape started in the second half of the 18th century, when the previously almost completely forested area was transformed by the first settlers into a grassland-forest mosaic within a short period of time (Ilyés 2007). Following the development of the cultural landscape (and lasting until ~1950), mostly informal social institutions (e.g., order of inheritance) and demographic (population increase) drivers led to the fragmentation of the hay meadow parcels and in parallel with this to the partial intensification of grassland management (Ilyés 2007, Babai et al. 2014). This intensification was limited by the geomorphology of the landscape and by the poor economic potential, so grassland management remained extensive (Babai et al. 2014, Kun et al. 2019).

Significant new external governance and economic drivers that influenced the landscape structure and biodiversity began to appear from the 1950s onwards (cf. Báldi and Faragó 2007, Hanspach et al. 2014, Sutcliffe et al. 2015b, Balázsi et al. 2019). In the socialist period, the otherwise general transformation of agriculture (collectivization) was only partly implemented in the mountainous regions of Romania, including Gyimes (see, e.g., Kuemmerle et al. 2009, Iancu and Stroe 2016): while the forests and pastures were nationalized, the hay meadows remained privately owned, so their management changed little (cf. Huband and McCracken 2011, Lieskovský et al. 2014). An economic driver also emerged: new work opportunities became available (at the administrative urban center of the region), mainly in industry, so farming became a secondary activity for many families. Nevertheless, the operation of extensive, traditional grassland management was continuous, and farming as a subsistence activity remained highly important.

After the collapse of socialism (1989), the land restitution process and the transition toward a free market-oriented economy resulted in significant social and economic changes (loss of workplaces, renewed importance of agriculture, reappearance of semi-subsistent smallholder farms; cf. Kuemmerle et al. 2009, Mikulcak et al. 2013, Hanspach et al. 2014). Even these changes had negligible impact on hay-meadow management.

However, in 2007, after Romania acceded to the European Union, the legal status of the study area changed, as it was incorporated into the Natura 2000 network (in 2011) as a Site of Community Importance (ROSCI0323 - 59 641 ha). Furthermore, a new system of agricultural regulation was introduced within the framework of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which aims to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by providing compensatory payments in exchange for complying with conservation regulations in subsistence farming (AECS; Science for Environment Policy 2017). The most important segments of this scheme in Romania were the single area payment available to all applying farmers (Pillar 1) and, optionally, the payment for agricultural practices beneficial to the climate and the environment (Pillar 2; cf. Mikulcak et al. 2013). These fundamental changes and reforms profoundly influenced extensive grassland-management practices (cf. Mikulcak et al. 2013, Babai et al. 2015).

Despite the recent socioeconomic and regulatory changes, species-rich mountain hay meadows in Gyimes are still managed for subsistence or for family profit by local farmers, not for nature conservation. Most of the local grassland-management practices are in congruence with the goals of the nature conservation regulations, e.g., intensity of use, organic fertilizers, and low impact machinery (Babai et al. 2015). Only a few, but essential elements of the management system, e.g., first date of time of mowing is 1 July, are seriously and negatively affected. These regulations were developed without an adequate understanding of the local ecological and socioeconomic contexts and local farmers’ interests (cf. Burton and Paragahawewa 2011, Babai et al. 2015). Local farmers, however, accept the regulations (although knowledge of the exact rules is generally low) in return for the financial support offered by the schemes to decrease the economic vulnerability of their small-scale farms. The insufficient administrative capacity of local and regional authorities allows the rules to be loosely interpreted. Regional NGOs (Pogány-Havas Association and Barbara Knowles Fund), as bridging organizations, support the operation of small-scale farms and the objectives of farmers, as well as nature conservation initiatives (cf. Mikulcak et al. 2013). Nonetheless, the difficulties of small-scale farms remain, and have even become more severe in recent years.

Data collection and analysis

In order to gain insight into the local perception of the direct and indirect drivers and trade-offs affecting the time of mowing and traditional grassland management, particular emphasis was placed on participant observation and on actively participating in “collaborative, communal mowing,” known locally as the practice of kaláka (~105 days in the field, e.g., hand-mowing, aftermath mowing, rotating, covering, transporting hay). Furthermore, we conducted structured and semi-structured interviews (n = 85) and organized focus group discussions (n = 2, with six and five participants, respectively) with local farmers (n = 52, mean age: 62.5) between 2010 and 2019. Interviewees were chosen using snowball sampling. The main focuses of the questions concerned the extensive, traditional management practices on hay meadows that influence the condition of the hay and shape the vegetation and species composition. We asked about direct and indirect drivers affecting management activities. The classification of drivers was based on the categorization of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which covers all the direct and indirect drivers involved in operating social-ecological systems (see, e.g., Díaz et al. 2015, Elbakidze et al. 2018). Based on this categorization, we considered the perceived impact of climate change, land-use change, direct exploitation, pollution, and invasive species as direct drivers, while economic, technical, demographic, cultural, and governance drivers affecting social-ecological systems were deemed indirect drivers. All the drivers mentioned by the interviewees were grouped into these driver categories. Trade-offs made by local farmers were categorized based on their priorities. We examined the relationships between drivers and trade-offs in three important periods generally accepted in CEEC (e.g., Hanspach et al. 2014, Balázsi et al. 2019): Period 1 (P1): 1950–1990, the period of agricultural collectivization, when post-war changes in extensive mountain agricultural systems were implemented throughout CEEC; Period 2 (P2): 1990–2007, the period when the late socialist and post-socialist changes clearly affected the human communities and the land-use systems of traditional mountain agrarian landscapes (Hanspach et al. 2014, Tudor 2015); Period 3 (P3): 2007–present, following EU accession, new governance drivers manifested themselves, triggering radical social and economic changes.

All the interviews were conducted by, and focus group discussions were organized by the first author (in Hungarian). The interviews were conducted in accordance with the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) Code of Ethics (ISE 2006) and the recommendations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Interviewees were informed in advance about the aims of the research and that the research would be published. Prior informed consent was obtained for making the voice recordings (73 hours of recordings).

Interview data were transcribed verbatim (data were illustrated with the translations of verbatim thoughts quoted from local farmers), and arranged in tables using Excel software, according to the salient topics raised by interviewees. These topics were coded, categorized (Ryan and Bernard 2003), and finally analyzed based on the local perception of local farmers about drivers and trade-offs. Of course, the theoretical framework and coding simplified the complexity of the studied social-ecological system, but because of the long-term nature of our research project (2004–), with the help of the second author, who is a knowledgeable, middle-aged farmer from the local community with whom we have collaborated for the last 15 years, we hope we were able to consider all the locally important contextual aspects. All the considered drivers and trade-offs were discussed in detail with the second author.


Local understanding of the interacting direct and indirect drivers that affect the time of mowing

The time of mowing was traditionally linked to specific public holidays on the calendar and to the phenological stage of the vegetation (Table 1). The time of mowing and the whole system of hay meadow management was influenced by numerous direct and indirect drivers and changed significantly in all three of the periods studied (Table 2, Figs. 5, 6). Certain drivers directly affected the vegetation, and thus the time of mowing (e.g., climate change, change in the intensity of land use), while other drivers had an impact on the socioeconomic context (e.g., intensification, mechanization).

Local farmers regarded the following drivers as the most important: (1) during P1, the cultivation of cereal crops gradually came to an end, and half of the fields were turned into grasslands; manuring of the grasslands also became possible. This resulted in the vegetation developing more quickly, so mowing could be done earlier in the year. (2) Because of the more intensive management of the grasslands, more and more farmers abandoned the practice of springtime grazing on the hay meadows. This also contributed to the vegetation maturing sooner and therefore to earlier mowing. The process was accelerated further by (3) climate change: (3a) the reduced predictability and quantity of peak precipitations in June; (3b) the increasingly early arrival of spring; and (3c) increases in the summer daytime maximum temperature and the number of hot days in summer. Thanks to manuring and the cessation of springtime grazing, the grass stems grew taller and were more easily blown down because of (3d) the increasingly intense and more extremely distributed rainfall patterns. This also shifted the time of mowing to an earlier date. By P2, the time of mowing on inner hay meadows had shifted to the end of June (24 June–feast day of St. John), and on outer hay meadows to the middle of July. Aftermath mowing only took place on inner hay meadows, from the end of September during P1, and from the middle of August during P2 (Figs. 5, 6). The trend continued during P3, with mowing taking place increasingly earlier in the year (Fig. 5). During P3, besides the impacts continuously advancing the time of mowing, the regulations imposed by the CAP agri-environment-climate scheme (AECS) exerted the opposite effect, resulting in delaying the time of mowing.

Trade-offs and compromises when deciding on the time of mowing

Local farmers evaluated numerous factors when deciding on the optimal time of mowing (Table 3, Appendix 1, Fig. 7). The most important were (1) the proper quality of hay collected, from an economic and livestock welfare point of view (early-mown hay); (2) long-term yield stability by ensuring seed ripening (late-mown hay); and (3) considering centralized governance drivers, especially the regulations of CAP in order to qualify for financial support of agri-environment-climate schemes (rigid deadline of mowing: 1 July). When deciding on the best time for mowing in any given year, the locals also took other factors into consideration, such as (1) other summertime agricultural tasks (organizing labor within the family); (2) the availability of mechanized mowers and/or hand-mowing capacity; and (3) the basic features of the given landscape or site (e.g., exposure: “it also depends, if it’s directly exposed to bright sunshine, then mowing is done earlier, otherwise the grass gets too hot and the hay goes bad in the extreme heat. If it’s on the north side, then that can be left a little longer, because the sun doesn’t shine so hard there”). Other factors considered were (4) the amount of manuring done to the site, (5) whether or not the meadows were used for springtime grazing, (6) the possibility of aftermath mowing in autumn, (7) the dominance of different plant functional groups (Poaceae, Fabaceae, Forbs), or (8) the dominance of key species (e.g., Onobrychis viciifolia; “there are many different plant species, and surely some are harmed by early mowing, while others benefit from it”). Old traditions of the families and individual decisions based on experience of local farmers also determined the time of mowing in any given year (“Everyone does things slightly differently”; “[one year] I mow that part earlier, the next year I mow it later, so I change [the order]”).

Complex changes: decaying informal social institutions

The increased number of drivers and related trade-offs in P3 caused a suboptimal situation regarding the time of mowing, based on the understanding of local farmers (primarily because of climate change). Hay-meadow parcels contracted in agri-environment-climate schemes are not allowed to be mown before 1 July. At the same time, extreme maximum daytime temperatures in early summer and the increasingly frequent absence of precipitation in June accelerated the ripening of the vegetation. This meant that the time of mowing on inner hay meadows subject to agri-environment-climate schemes was economically unfavorable.

In this situation, it became essential for every farmer to commence mowing immediately and individually after 1 July, meaning that farmers were unable to help each other. The time constraints made it impossible for the local farmers to carry on the traditional practice of “collaborative, communal haymaking,” known as kaláka, an informal social institution in which family-owned farms helped each other by combining their limited workforces (Fig. 8): “I don’t call anyone to help me with my mowing so that I don’t have to help them back, because on my own I can’t manage to help everyone back. … For two days we work on my meadow, and then for two days we do yours. That’s how it would go, like in the old days. But no more, now I start mowing, because it’s the right time for it, but when it’s good for me, then everybody does [their own] ... It’s like this because of the weather.” In the past, collaborative, communal haymaking shortened the time needed to complete mowing on each given meadow parcel and also reduced the risk of the hay becoming rain-soaked. According to the locals, the abandonment of the haymaking-kaláka as an “adaptive” strategy was also partly the result of the increasing use of mower machines, which significantly reduced the time needed to complete mowing.


Interacting direct and indirect drivers affecting social-ecological systems and the time of hay mowing

Based on the perceptions and understanding of local farmers, extensive, traditional grassland management, especially the timing of mowing, has had to cope with increasing pressures since the 1950s because of the cumulative impact and interactions of direct and indirect drivers. Some of the direct drivers affected the phenological phases of the vegetation, which contributed to changes in the optimal and actual time of mowing. Other drivers only impacted on the socio-cultural and economic context of the time of mowing. According to the local farmers, the direct drivers (climate change and land-use change) have so far not irreversibly affected the operation of extensive, traditional land-use systems, but socioeconomic and political interventions have placed these systems under considerable pressure (cf. Tyler at al. 2021). The gradually changing mentality of younger generations, together with rigid national and EU-level regulations, e.g., AECS, often unreasonably limit the individual decisions of local farmers, for example, by not taking into account the local ecological (e.g., the weather effects of a given year) and socio-cultural context (e.g., informal social institutions, like traditional ecological knowledge-based grassland management; Dahlström et al. 2013). These limitations have a negative impact on the operation of small-scale farms, despite the financial support the farmers receive (Dahlström et al. 2013, Mikulcak et al. 2013, 2015, Iancu and Stroe 2016). This mismatch may seriously jeopardize not only the survival of extensive, traditional grassland management and long-term yields (by harming grassland regeneration), but also the biodiversity of these mountain grasslands in general (Humbert et al. 2012, Hanspach et al. 2016, Kun et al. 2019). However, it is also important to note that the impact of changing weather patterns on agricultural practices is indisputable and was an important part of the public discourse in the studied local community. Although mountain regions worldwide are increasingly affected by climate change, the perceptions of local communities and the complex consequences of changing weather patterns on the local social-ecological systems are still rarely studied (Reyes-Garcia et al. 2016).

Our data indicated an increasing complexity and interaction of drivers. We argue that the cumulative effects of drivers threaten the adaptive capacity of the local management system (cf. Hanspach et al. 2014), and slowly eliminate essential factors, such as farmers with thorough traditional ecological knowledge, with previously typical social norms, and with a farming mindset that strives for self-sufficiency (cf. Balázsi et al. 2019).

The local understanding of trade-offs to navigate among interacting drivers

Because of the increasing cumulative effects of drivers, local farmers in Gyimes are forced to navigate between a number of trade-offs when deciding on management practices (in our case: the time of mowing). It has become almost impossible to reckon with all the ecological, economic, socio-cultural, and political/nature conservation factors (cf. Iancu and Stroe 2016). Meanwhile, the agricultural priorities of local farmers have also changed: although ensuring seed ripening for long-term yield stability was the primary goal among farmers in the first period, in later periods the quality of hay increased in importance. Consequently, changing priorities and current drivers have culminated in a single, but challenging decision: local farmers in Gyimes have to weigh up agricultural factors (livestock welfare, hay that is mown at the optimal phenological stage) against the amount of financial support they receive from AECS in order to maintain adaptive capacity and the generally poor economic viability of their small-scale farms (cf. Tudor 2015, Iancu and Stroe 2016).

This adaptation has also caused the gradual disappearance of an informal social “barter” institution (kaláka, collaborative, communal mowing) that previously optimized the workforces of small-scale farms and fostered social cohesion. This informal institution was an important form of cooperation within grassland management that also played a role in shaping social relationships (social capital) and building cohesion in the community (cf. Burton and Paragahawewa 2011, Burton and Schwarz 2013, Mikulcak et al. 2013, de Krom 2017).

Recommendations to develop more adequate agri-environment-climate schemes

The drivers and trade-offs documented in our study are not specific to Gyimes, but exist everywhere in Transylvania, even in other regions of CEEC, and make it more difficult for extensive, traditional land-use systems to survive (Lieskovský et al. 2014, Žarnovičan et al. 2020). AECS as an optional political factor could help to mitigate some of these undesirable effects of the harsh socioeconomic environment, especially through a well-adapted financial support system targeting small-scale farmers. At the same time there are conflicting points in the regulatory system. The first is the inflexible character of regulations on the time of mowing and on other management practices (Mikulcak et al. 2013, Page et al. 2019). A more rational regulation that loosens the restrictions on when mowing can be carried out, e.g., by taking the year-effects of weather conditions, altitude etc. into account, could be more readily accepted locally (whereas the present restrictions often discourage farmers from participating in the schemes). A more flexible regulation could ensure the operation of the parcel-level land-use microdiversity as well, which is favorable for the high quality of hay in terms of the phenological state of the vegetation and is also favorable for biodiversity (Kun et al. 2019). The second point is the eligibility criteria related to the minimum area of a meadow parcel for entitlement to AECS (0.3 ha in the case of hay meadows). A significant part of the species-rich hay meadows in the study area and in Transylvania cannot meet these criteria (Dahlström et al. 2013, Mikulcak et al. 2013, Iancu and Stroe 2016). Regulation of the time of management practices homogenizes and synchronizes micro-scale land-use diversity, while built-in eligibility criteria for minimum area leads to the fusion of parcels. Both phenomena have a strong negative impact on biodiversity (Cizek et al. 2012, Dahlström et al. 2013, Sutcliffe et al. 2015b, Kun et al. 2019). A further important issue is the need for greater income through subsidies and through the increased marketability of high-quality local agricultural products of small-scale farms, which can be crucial for increasing their economic viability, maintaining a production-oriented mentality rather than one that responds solely to the interests of financial compensation (Burton and Paragahawewa 2011), and fostering willingness among younger generations of farmers to continue at least some of the extensive practices (cf. Mikulcak et al. 2013, 2015, Hanspach et al. 2014). Although small-scale and semi-subsistence forms of agricultural production are considered administratively and economically unsustainable and uncompetitive (Mikulcak et al. 2013), these farmers are recognized by the public and by nature conservation as highly important actors producing high-quality food and maintaining HNV cultural landscapes, diverse ecosystem services, and biodiversity of European significance (Sutcliffe et al. 2015a, b).

Increasing flexibility, changing eligibility, and strengthening the local-product-oriented mentality point to a transition from a centralized and inflexible, action-based form of AECS (regulation of management practices in exchange for financial compensation) to a results-based approach of AECS (paying for biodiversity achievements; Burton and Paragahawewa 2011, in France: Fleury et al. 2015, for a pilot-project in Transylvania see: Page et al. 2019). Such regulatory reforms seem to be greatly preferred in communities where there is still a willingness to continue the existing small-scale, extensive, traditional land-use system, and where the necessary traditional ecological knowledge and cultural values still prevail, like in Gyimes and in many regions of Transylvania (cf. Babai and Molnár 2014, Iancu and Stroe 2016, Hanspach et al. 2016, Ivaşcu et al. 2016).

The rarely considered social aspects of extensive, traditional land-use systems (e.g., attitudes of farmers, social norms, farmers’ interest in social capital, and status, being a ‘good farmer’ based on local principles) could attain a better position as a result of this transition (cf. Burton and Paragahawewa 2011, Burton and Schwarz 2013, Sutcliffe et al. 2015a, de Krom 2017). Clearly, the social-ecological systems that still exist that make use of traditional land-use practices built on traditional ecological knowledge deserve special attention and should be encouraged and prioritized by decision makers and by AECS in CEEC (Dahlström et al. 2013, Babai et al. 2015, Molnár et al. 2020), because neither the species-rich semi-natural grasslands nor the mentality of small-scale farmer communities can be restored through the conventional compensation strategies of AECS (Sutcliffe et al. 2015b).


We documented an increasing complexity of interacting direct and indirect drivers on traditional land use over the last decades in the studied mountain community. Local farmers found it increasingly difficult to strike the optimal balance when making trade-offs, specifically, in our case, with regard to the time of mowing. Our results suggest that the local community is not far from reaching its adaptive capacity. We argue that more flexible and adaptive agri-environment-climate regulations are needed in order to assure the continuity and ongoing adaptation of this and other Eastern Central European, centuries-old, traditional management systems, which are responsible for creating and maintaining high nature value cultural landscapes.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We, the authors, would like to express our gratitude to the interviewees for sharing their time and knowledge with us during our research. We express special thanks to Béla Jánó’s family for helping with our field work, and we also thank Steve Kane for English translations and revision. Special thanks to the reviewers, whose comments and suggestions greatly improved the earlier versions of the manuscript.
Dániel Babai was supported by the MTA Premium Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences [grant number: PPD008/2017], by the LICCI - Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts: the contribution of local knowledge to climate change research program under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (ERC Consolidator Grant No 771056 LICCI), and by the MTA Lendület Program (LENDULET_2020-56). Zsolt Molnár was supported by the project Fine-scale landscape ecology: linking vegetation change with interacting indirect and direct drivers using traditional ecological knowledge and oral history (NKFI K 131837).


The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, DB. The data are not publicly available because they contain information that could compromise the privacy of research participants.


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Correspondent author:
Dániel Babai
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