Time to bring back the bears


AS EVENING turns into night a bat flits just above my head through the darkening sky. Nothing too remarkable about that, you might think – but then this is Transylvania.

On top of a hill overlooking the village is an eerie-looking fortress but I decide not to venture in – not out of fear, you understand: What could there be to fear about entering a creepy building in Transylvania as bats swoop overhead and night falls?

The reason is actually much more banal – a sign on the wall says opening hours are between 10am and 6pm and it is nearly eight.

As for the bats, there are actually 32 species of bat in Romania, one of the most diverse populations in Europe – we have just nine species here in Ireland. However, despite such a variety of these winged creatures of the night there are no vampire bats in Transylvania; they are native to South and Central America.

The village of Viscri dates from the 12th century when Saxons from Germany settled in the area. Cattle and geese roam the main street and some villagers still use horses and carts as transport.

Viscri is set in a rolling landscape of open meadows and low tree-covered hills located between the city of Brasov and tourist-draw historic town Sighisoara, where Vlad Tepe – also known variously as Vlad the Impaler or Dracul – was born.

While Viscri does attract its share of tourists, most come just for a few hours to wander around and visit the Lutheran church which is sheltered behind the fortified walls.

Across the road from where I'm staying is a distinctive-looking blue house which my AirBnB host Bogdan tells me belongs to Prince Charles. At first I think he's referring to someone descended from Romania's former royal family who has kept the title.

However, it does in fact belong to Britain's heir to the throne, who was drawn to the area because of his love of Saxon architecture. He also claims to be descended from Vlad Tepes. 

Walking trails snake among the trees in the surrounding hills – oak, ash and pine. Following rain the previous day an abundance of mushrooms dots the forest floor.

Breaking through the tree line and on to the hill top, the village of Viscri lies below, with the church set between the fortified walls now looking much less sinister than it did the night before.

There are wolves and bears in these Transylvanian hills. In fact the population in Romania of both these endangered European animals is among the healthiest in Europe.

Ironically the high bear numbers are the result of the arrogance of former dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu who was obsessed with shooting them. But although he personally killed hundreds of bears he also banned anyone else from hunting them and, despite his own cruelty, this resulted in the population increasing.

There are now estimated to be around 5,000 bears in Romania. I don't see any in the woods around Viscri during my visit, but given their history of persecution by humans and wing-nut dictators they have more to fear than we do.

It is not certain how many wolves there are in Romania but the country boasts one of Europe's biggest population (around 2,000). Despite the negative mythology that surrounds these secretive and much-maligned animals they too, like the bears, have more to fear from humans than we do from them.

There have been calls for wolves to be introduced back into the wild in Ireland for the first time since they became extinct here 250 years ago with the suggestion that bringing back wolves into our eco-system could have a beneficial trickle-down effect. 

The last bears in Ireland died out thousands of years ago, but maybe it is time to reintroduce them as well.

(First published in The Irish News on October 2 2019)


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