Danube Delta

April 27, 2011

Sitting in the middle of a vast river delta, surrounded by tall Phragmites australis* reeds, an intense feeling of peace began to filter through my veins. No office, no fingers flying on the keyboard, no phonecalls. Just wide open landscape.

My heart was soaring. Distant memories flooding back from Africa and Australia where I had been surrounded by the same reeds. A weird timewarp-where-am-I concept boggled my mind. Here I was in Romania, in the middle of The Danube Delta, probably the largest reed beds in the World! Right here in Europe!

Serene silence … and then I heard it. A deep, booming, eagle-owl call. But it was the middle of the day with no big trees in sight?!… My colleagues tried to be kind and inform me gently that that wasn’t possible…”Shhh.. there it is again!” I said in excitement. And then another answering call. My brain and voice connected at the same instant, “It’s a Bittern!!” I’d never heard one before, but somehow I knew! Wow – Awesome! And from then on, literally everywhere we stopped, we heard Bittern, at night, during the day.. I was thrilled!

All the pre-field trip bumpf I had read on The Delta had been a rather depressing litany of one environmental disaster after another, but here I could see before my eyes immense opportunities. The ability of the earth to right itself given half a chance. And real space for wildlife. There was just so much birdlife and so much wilderness around us. Armed with wellies and freezing cold we had spectacular observations of Pallid Harrier, flocks of hoopoe and night heron, the cargoplane-like Dalmatian pelicans with their lumbering heavy bellies and 3 metre wingspan, Pallas gulls, pygmy cormorants, white tailed eagle and lots of migrants on their way to their breeding grounds in Europe.

My thoughts were confirmed on our visit to the last village, “Thank you for giving us hope! You are like aikido!” the petite woman said to us,  “You turn the bad into something good.” Up till then she had been silently in the background bustling from the kitchen to our table, feeding us with an amazing smorgasbord of local produce and occasionally pausing to hear the discussions between us and the Mayor.  Her beaming smile and enthusiasm summed the meeting up. Our audience from the tiny village deep in the Outer Danube Delta had embraced our plans for Rewilding Europe with infectious enthusiasm and hope “So, when do we start?!”  Impatient to realise the vision of a landscape filled with herds of free roaming, wild Red Deer instead of the feral domestic animals.

The group of three villages have little in the way of gainful employment, dependent on small-scale use of the natural resources and an aging population of around 1000 of which only 130 were children. To make matters even more challenging, conditions are harsh in this landscape with temperatures falling to -15o C  in winter and 40oC in summer, with plagues of mosquitoes and horse flies taking on legendary proportions. But the population of mainly Lipovani – descendents of people who left Russia in the late 1700s to avoid religious persecution – have a wonderful culture to be proud of, where the rest of us have lost so much of our own cultural identity. Here we were surrounded by towering haystacks long disappeared in most parts of Europe, horses and cattle standing in thick piles of hay munching away behind thick wooden palisades. Beautifully decorated simple wooden houses and the huge white domes of the church towering behind.  At one point we were confronted by the sight of a man galloping full speed towards us, bareback on his pony. Arms flapping, hooves flying on the sandy road.  “Like a Kosack.” Our driver-come-local teacher, turned and said to us with a quirky grin, beaming in pride.

Earlier that day we had walked through the ancient Letea forest, one of the oldest forests in Europe. Huge trees flooded with groundwater seepage and surrounded by towering sand dunes. Wild and untamed. Beyond that were open expanses of abandoned fish farms where scraggy feral cattle roamed. Two bulls were bellowing at each other, their sounds reverberating in the silence. It was primeval and strangely reminiscent of a pair of male lion. Far in the distance we heard the heavy reports of cannon scaring away birds from the remaining fish farms – the highly endangered pygmy cormorant being one of the primary “pests”.

As we continued our talks, our hosts had immediately seen the potential for their community, with tourism and opportunities for their young school leavers. A new and positive future. And it is possible that in a relatively short period of time, this area of the Danube Delta can be transformed into an even more natural area with natural processes and ample room for people and nature.

(*Phragmites australis are found on every continent except Antarctica and may have the widest distribution of any flowering plant!)

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