Transylvania - School Expeditions - Operation Wallacea

Transylvania – School Expeditions

As well as this stunning documentary exploring the mountains and forests of Carpathia, we would also recommend you take a look at William Blacker’s book “Along the enchanted way” for an introduction to the people and culture of the region.

Transylvania Schools Booklet 2017

Structure of the expedition

The Tarnava Mare Natura 2000 Region comprises 85,000ha of particularly rich landscape and is one of Europe’s last medieval landscapes. The area has arguably the most extensive flower-rich grasslands remaining in lowland Europe, as well as the continent’s last remaining lowland bears. The landscape still presents a medieval land-use pattern: forested ridges and gullies, pasture and hay meadows on gentler slopes and terraces, and arable land and smaller meadows on the flat valley bottoms near villages.

Inclusion of the area in the EU Natura 2000 network enables funding to be obtained to maintain the low input traditional based farming that has created such a high biodiversity. The Opwall teams are completing an annual biodiversity survey of the region in order to assess the effectiveness of maintaining the traditional farming practices in protecting this outstanding area. The work is being completed with ADEPT, a Romanian based NGO, with the Opwall teams providing annual data on a series of biodiversity performance and farming criteria.

Itinerary for Tarnava Mare surveys

During this expedition the teams will split their two weeks between two picturesque and remote Saxon villages in the foothills of the Carpathians. The study sites have been paired into villages and over the course of the expedition each group of students will spend 5 – 6 days surveying in each of the target valleys. They will then trek over the hills to the next village. In each valley the students will be split into one of several study teams and over the course of the two weeks will have the chance to participate in each of the teams for at least two days.

  • Large mammals: This team will position camera traps in key locations in the forests and on the valley transects in order to capture sightings of large mammals such as bears, wild boar and deer. The team will also carry out track and sign transect surveys checking for scat and any additional evidence of large mammals. Students will also get the opportunity to join a local bear expert for an evening to potentially view large mammals such as bear, wild boar and red deer.
  • Small Mammals: This team will set small mammal traps late at night which will be checked and emptied each morning; students will assist with taking morphometric measurements of any mammals captured.
  • Birds: The bird team will be leaving at dawn and walking the long transect sample routes that traverse the valleys either side of the village. They will complete point count surveys at 500m intervals en route, looking for sightings and listening for calls of the wide range of birds found in the area. The bird assemblage includes an abundance of woodpeckers, shrikes, warblers and many birds of prey (such as eagles and hawks). In the evening call-back surveys are also completed for corn crake and owls. There may also be the opportunity to observe and assist with a bird ringing program where species can be seen up close.
  • Plants: The plant team will be focusing on 30 target species which are good indicators of grassland types or have medicinal use. Transects will be completed in low, medium and high nature value grasslands along the different sample routes where the presence of different key species will be noted. Because this area contains some of the most diverse grasslands in Europe this project will be a chance to work in a spectacular and rarely seen habitat.
  • Butterflies: The butterfly team will be covering the same 50m transects as the plant team, recording the butterflies encountered and using sweep nets to catch and identify the rarer species. Light trapping will be completed for moths in the evenings, with early mornings then spent identifying those species caught.
  • Bats: The bat team will be using a number of methods to establish the species present in the area which may include the use of recordable bat detectors, observation of roosting bats and mist netting. To quantify the species present, various survey techniques will be used such as, counting bats emerging from roost and using handheld bat detectors on walking transects.
  • Farms: The traditional farming methods used in this region play a crucial role in the maintenance of high biodiversity. Part of the monitoring effort therefore includes visiting a number of farms in each village and recording the numbers of livestock, dates of grassland cutting, type of arable crops etc. They will also be gathering data on bear attacks on the livestock and will have a unique opportunity to experience methods of farming which were lost many years ago in most of the world.

The students will also be completing a Transylvanian ecology course comprising the following lectures: Transylvanian landscapes (Saxon history, management and threats to the landscape and farming strategies), sampling techniques (the types of survey methods employed and how certain species can act as indicators), biodiversity in Tarnava Mare (biodiversity and endemism in general terms and specific to the region), classification focusing on the mammals and herpetofauna of the region (amphibians and snakes of Europe and bears, wolves and cats), bird diversity and classification, and conservation strategies in Transylvania (habitats and bird Directives, ecotourism, traditional products).

Romania Teacher


This Opwall expedition gives students the chance to join a small team which will move between remote villages across the region.  Each village is nestled in one of many valleys running north to south and after completing surveys for 5 – 6 days (in each village) the team will trek up the side of the adjacent valley and down into the next one.  Luggage can be transported on oxcart or on a 4×4 vehicle.

When in the villages teams will usually be staying in basic campsites with tents pitched under the fruit trees and where the water in the showers is heated by the sun each day.  Meals are locally prepared and the majority of the food on the expedition is baked, grown, or farmed in the same village in which it is consumed.  In some villages volunteers will be able to stay in local guest houses, which gives a fantastic insight into the Saxon culture and traditions.

It should be noted that on this expedition almost all surveys are conducted on foot. Volunteers can be out in the sun surveying the remote forests, meadows and grasslands for long periods of time each day, in addition to collecting more data during the evenings where possible, so it is helpful to have a reasonable level of fitness.