Contribution by Anna Jones
It’s a hot June day in a Romanian hay meadow. I’m watching a Transylvanian count wading through thigh-high grasses peppered with oxeye daisies, yellow rattle and sainfoin, hovering his mobile phone over the flowers playing a recording of a corncrake. “Sometimes they answer back,” he says, and tips me off that you can simulate their rasping call by running a pen along a comb.
I’ve never heard a corncrake before, not even on a mobile phone. These secretive little birds, barely bigger than a blackbird, are related to moorhens and coots but unlike their wet-footed cousins they tuck themselves away in tall vegetation, nesting in hayfields and meadows.
I’m sure Grandad Bill knew the call of the corncrake - they were widespread in the UK when he was a lad but declined catastrophically during the 20th Century when farmers switched from hand scything to mechanical mowing and cut their grass crops earlier in the year. Baby corncrakes, hunkered down in the grass, didn’t stand a chance, but before you picture some maniacal Jack Nicholson ‘Here’s Johnny’ moment on a Massey Ferguson, I’m not suggesting farmers like Grandad took any pleasure in this or even knew what was happening.
But it happened nonetheless, and the corncrake is now a red list species - a bird of high conservation concern - and your best chance of seeing one is on the western and northern islands of Scotland.
The Count’s enthusiasm for the native birds and animals of Transylvania – be it a weird chicken or a shy corncrake - is infectious, and I find myself willing the birds to respond to his conscientious efforts with the mobile phone. He gives up and re-joins our team at the edge of the hayfield.
It is June 2015. A bumpy three-hour journey, traversing canyon-like potholes most of the way from Tirgu Mures airport, has brought us to the tiny village of Zalánpatak. I’m with Charlotte Smith, presenter of Radio 4’s Farming Today, and Dimitri Houtart, the BBC’s rural affairs editor, producing a radio programme about biodiversity with Count Kálnoky and his friend, HRH the Prince of Wales.
Prince Charles first visited Transylvania in 1998 and was immediately captivated by the region's "timelessness". He said it reminded him of stories he read as a child – where bears and wolves roam the forests, mountain pastures tinkle with cowbells and clouds of silver studded blue butterflies dance to the swoosh of a farmer’s scythe. For a man who has dedicated 50 years trying to get us to see the value of nature – here it was in all its priceless glory.
In the shade of a rustic open-sided barn, I nervously grapple with the heir to the throne’s lapel, attaching a radio mic to record his interview with Charlotte Smith for this special edition of Radio 4’s On Your Farm.
They talk about the immense pressures on our environment and HRH’s vision for a new form of accounting, which puts an economic value on our ‘natural capital’. Think of it as a bank account for biodiversity – if you make withdrawals or deplete the balance in any way, you’ll get hit with some big charges. If you leave it rest and grow, humans can live off the interest in harmony with nature. “Maintaining nature’s economy,” he says, “is absolutely central to maintaining our own, human economy.”
The prince has dedicated half a century to environmental campaigning, driven by a desire to protect the biodiversity he and every other baby boomer inherited for his grandchildren’s’ generation and beyond. At that point in the interview, he unfolds a piece of paper in his lap and asks he we would mind if he quoted from “a marvellous piece of writing” by the British travel writer Robert Byron. He proceeds to read All These I Learnt, written sometime in the early 20th Century. The poem lists nearly 100 plants, insects, birds and mammals that Byron knew as a child from “butterflies that suck the brambles” to “orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves.”
The poem finishes with a tribute to nature and a promise to the future: “All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost…They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!”
The Prince of Wales takes off his glasses, folds away the paper and says: “All those things he wrote about, so many of them have gone in Britain. But they’re here.”
I look out to the Transylvanian meadow, an antiquated pastoral scene that feels viscerally familiar. I feel like I’ve been here before - but that’s impossible. It must be an echo of my humanity, my species. Because I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime.
There, on a summer’s day in Romania listening to the future king read poetry, is the first time I felt what I now know is called ‘eco grief’. My longing for something lost.
Yet here in this meadow bordering the forested slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, corncrakes abound; though I’d struggle to hear one over the thrumming cacophony of insect life, as chirruping crickets sing their hearts out in the sunshine.
Count Tibor Kálnoky’s family has lived here for 800 years – not counting a 60-year hiatus when they were exiled under Fascism and Communism. In 1989, the aristocrat was able to reclaim some of the ancestral lands in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania and returned from exile in Paris to live here permanently in the 1990s. He’s a smooth-looking guy, bearing a vague resemblance to Harrison Ford, and very jovial, though I’ve been warned not to make any cracks about Dracula. This is difficult when the Count excitedly introduces us to his rare breed flock of black Transylvanian bare-necked chickens; the gawkiest-looking birds I’ve ever seen with their long, naked necks protruding from black feathers like bright red periscopes, ripe for biting.
All These I Learnt
by Robert Byron (1905 - 1941)
If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs' mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd's purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat's beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady's bedstraw and lady's slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills - dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.
He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue - glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky - and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death's head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.
All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!