European bison (Bison bonasus)

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Return of the European Bison

A European bison (Bison bonasus) checks his new surroundings after being relocated to Armenis, Tarcu mountains, southwestern Romania. Photograph: Costas Dumitrescu

The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.

The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe’s largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.

Video (see the link below)

A herd of bison are gathered from across Europe for release into the wild in Romania. The animals were shot with a tranquiliser gun to immobilise them, then loaded onto a truck to drive to Romania. In all 17 bison were collected from wildlife parks and breeding centres across Europe. Video: Kristjan Jung

The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.

Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.

There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest.

Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.

Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”

The hulking, hairy beasts, some standing nearly two metres tall and and weighing as much as 1,000kg, have not been seen in this part of Romania for generations. “But it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls,” says Adrian Hagatis, project manager at WWF Romania.

A tussle ensues as the animals are let out in their new range at Armenis, Tarcu mountains, Romania. Photograph: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

One of the founding legends of Moldovia, in Romania’s east, centres around a Romanian nobleman, Dragoș, killing a bison, an act which some say was once a prerequisite for joining the country’s army. The herbivore is a symbol of national pride, and several nearby places still carry bison-related names.

But for Romania, the second poorest country in the EU after Bulgaria, bringing back bison is not just of cultural importance, it is also an economic imperative.

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The story of how the tin can nearly wasn’t


Tin cans have, in 200 years, changed the way the world eats. But Victorian disgust over a cheap meat scandal almost consigned the invention to rejection and failure.

Bryan Donkin left the chimney smoke of the city behind as his carriage headed south through Bermondsey, with the Duke of Kent’s letter of approval in his hand.

The smell of leather and hops receded as he came to the turnpike at Fort Place Gate, where the gatekeeper’s two-storey, brick house marked the end of the urban sprawl.

Behind him was an unhindered view of St Paul’s Cathedral while in front lay open land and his factory, where for the previous two years he had been trying to find the best ways to can food.

He could not have known that the impact from the contents of the papers he held would still be felt across the globe 200 years later.

Dated 30 June 1813, the day before, the letter explained that four distinguished members of the royal family – including Queen Charlotte, wife and consort of King George III – had tasted and enjoyed his canned beef.

Indulging such refined palates was not a matter of vanity for this modest Northumbrian engineer.

Instead, it meant he had the highest possible blessing to supply what are thought to be the world’s first commercial cans of preserved food to the Admiralty, thereby sparing British seamen thousands of miles away the monotony of salted meat.

According to his diaries, held at Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock, the can-making operation had begun to mobilise on Monday 3 May.

A network of agents was based at key seaports to tout for custom from naval ships and merchants. The patent was finally his, the meat suppliers paid and adverts placed in newspapers, while business cards were engraved with the name of the company – Donkin, Hall and Gamble.

The factory occupied a rectangular plot of about 300 sq m, dwarfed by Donkin’s larger plant for papermaking machines.

In the weeks that followed, within those four walls, sheets of tin plate were transformed by hand into tin cans filled with beef, mutton, carrots, parsnips and soup, destined for every corner of the British Empire.

And so the first faltering steps of a multi-billion-pound business were made. Today, households in Europe and the US alone get through 40 billion cans of food a year, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington DC.

But the road to success was almost derailed by a meat scandal in the 19th Century that – with echoes of today’s horsemeat crisis – involved a Romanian meat factory and rocked public faith in canned foods.


How the first tin cans were made

Standing on the spot of Donkin’s factory today, now a school car park on Southwark Park Road, there is little evidence of the industry which, 200 years ago, was about to spread around the globe.

Obscured by some scaffolding, a small white plaque says the first canned food was produced on this site. But it fights a losing battle for attention with the sign for Karma Supermarket’s low-price beers, spirits and ciders – some sold in four-packs that could be described as the first cans’ modern-day descendants.

Such a low-key commemoration reflects how mundane the tin can has become to us. Behind the door of a kitchen cupboard or lying discarded in the street, literally and metaphorically kicked down the road, it exists in the background of our lives.

It’s a far cry from the days when its creation occupied the thoughts of some of the leading scientific thinkers in Britain and France.

So committed were these bright minds to the technology of food preservation that they gave little thought to making a device to open their new invention, so for decades a hammer and chisel, a bayonet or a rock had to do the job.

The story of the tin can is one of ingenuity and endurance, and one that affects every one of us. It has changed the way we eat, the way we shop and the way we travel.

But its pioneers had no such lofty ambitions – they just wanted to fill the stomachs of sailors.

Read more of this fascinating history

Read more of this fascinating history



Vlad III

For me Romania is a land that I would dearly love to visit.

Of course, I first heard about the country as a school boy with a keen interest in geography. Then later through Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Which, I might add, is not a popular book in Romania because the character of Dracula was based on Vlad Tepes, an important character in Romania’s history.

But Romania seems to suffer a bad reputation.


Why has Romania got such a bad public image?

The Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has defended his country after a wave of negative reporting about it in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Why does it have a bad public image?

Of course, it had to be Romania.

You could almost sense the relief for some when, in the midst of the horsemeat scandal, the finger of blame was pointed at abattoirs in an eastern European state.

Now it made sense. Cue stock footage of Gypsy horse and carts and knowing references to organised crime.

Except, of course, there is no evidence that any horsemeat left Romania labelled as anything other than horsemeat.

But slurs about horsemeat are just the latest in a long line of public relations problems to have hit Romania.

Students and young professionals from Romania talk about living and working in the UK – and whether they plan to return home

The country’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, has this week been forced to launch an all-out charm offensive over fears about a flood of immigrants when the EU opens its labour market to his country, and neighbouring Bulgaria, on 1 January 2014.

Headlines such as “The Mafia bosses who can’t wait to flood Britain with beggars”, “We want to get into your country before someone locks the door” and “An immigration calamity looms” have incensed Romanians living in the UK.

On Friday, the country’s ambassador to London, Ion Jinga, claimed such “alarmist” and “inflammatory” coverage could lead to Romanians being assaulted in the street.

He argues that all the Romanians who want to work in the UK are already there, on work permits or self-employed.

In an article in the Times, the Romanian prime minister strikes a more emollient tone, inviting Britons to come and enjoy a “strong pint” in Bucharest’s Old Town or a “quiet holiday” in the sleepy Transylvanian villages beloved by Prince Charles.

Improved job rates in Romania mean that “Britain can rest assured”, he writes.

This argument cuts little ice with Migration Watch chairman, former diplomat Sir Andrew Green, who says the presence of a settled Romanian population in the UK is a “pull factor” that will encourage more to make the journey.

The press has seized on a report by Migration Watch claiming 50,000 Romanians a year will travel to the UK when working restrictions are lifted.

Migration Watch’s chairman cites events from 2004, when the government grossly under-estimated the number of migrants that would travel from new EU states such as Poland. The government said there would be net immigration of between 5,000 and 13,000 a year. In fact, 2011 Census data showed the Polish population alone had risen in England and Wales from 58,000 in 2001 to 579,000 10 years later.

Romania has been trying to reshape its image for some time. The government has launched a number of advertising and PR campaigns in recent years aimed at improving the country’s perception abroad.

In 2011, it launched a global “Why I Love Romania” poster campaign, trumpeting the achievements of famous Romanians such as tennis player Ilie Nastase, gymnast Nadia Comanenci and scientist Nicolae Paulescu, who discovered insulin.

Last year, it launched a campaign to attract more tourists to the Carpathian Mountains, which was much mocked in the Romanian press.

Did stories about horsemeat play up to prejudices about Romania?

And a Romanian ad agency, GMP, has produced tongue-in-cheek ads hitting back at, so far unfounded, claims that the UK is considering a campaign to deter Romanians from coming to the UK.

The proposed Why Don’t You Come Over? campaign in Romania features slogans such as “We speak better English than anywhere you’ve been in France” and “Charles bought a house here in 2005. And Harry has never been photographed naked once.”

Map of Romania

The campaign slogan is: “We may not like Britain, but you will love Romania.”

Ronnie Smith, a British business consultant based in Romania, says the UK “ought to be ashamed” of its coverage of Romania but he does not believe the country’s government has the resources, or the will, to respond effectively.

“There is not a rebranding campaign. There should be but there won’t be, not to the extent that’s needed,” he says.

Romania’s image problem may even be traceable to the late 19th Century, when travellers returned from Transylvania with tales of a strange, forbidding land, says Dr James Koranyi, a history lecturer at Durham University.

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