University of Brighton Alumni Association


International Experience Fund winner Natalie Holmes visits Transylvania in Romania

Natalie recently visited the conservation/education charity Operation Wallacea in Transylvania, Romania, as part of her International Experience. The International Experience Fund is an annual programme, kindly supported by Santander Universities and other generous donors, which exists to help eligible undergraduate students take advantage of opportunities overseas, such as work placements, volunteering or studying abroad. Enabling students to access such opportunities will have a range of benefits – enhancing life experiences, building a global network of contacts, broadening horizons and increasing intercultural competence, as well as gaining a competitive edge with regards future careers. For more information, visit

Natalie tells the story in her own words:

“Last summer I spent two weeks in Transylvania, Romania with the conservation/education charity Operation Wallacea. This rural area is one of the least developed in Europe and the local people farm in the way they have for centuries, many still using horses and carts. Because there is no tradition of pesticide or fertiliser use, the local ecology is extraordinarily rich, the number of wildflowers and butterflies being unlike anything we are used to – maybe an echo of what the English countryside used to be like before the agro-chemicals industry took off.

Operation Wallacea run several projects across the globe and this one is spread across eight villages, and we were the sixth year. The aim is essentially data collection, participants learned and implemented techniques for counting birds, butterflies, botany, bats, and large and small mammals. This often involved very early starts, but it was magical to head up to the hills as dawn broke with a local ‘birdman’ who could identify birds from their calls hundreds of metres away. The data is shared with a Romanian conservation group, Fundatia Adept, and is used by researchers and planners. The local wildlife faces many pressures; development such as road building, illegal logging in the woods above the farms where bears and wild cats still live, and of course the economic pressure for the small household farms to merge and professionalise, and for the younger generation to leave for the cities.

As well as studying the ecology, we also carried out farm surveys, asking the local people what they produced and what changes, if any, they were planning for the year ahead. The friendliness and hospitality of the villagers was very humbling, and I left with a completely different impression of Romania and Romanians, than the one I had absorbed here, although thinking about it I didn’t actually know any. That’s not to say there wasn’t a dark side, at one village there was a Roma area on the outskirts, which was run-down and shabby looking. We were advised not to go there, and there is clearly no love lost between various ethnic groups in Romania.

During my two weeks I learned a lot, and made new friends. I didn’t actually see a bear, but I did see some bear faeces! We saw bear and pine marten and a wild cat family filmed by the camera traps we had set up, which was very special, and I left the trip inspired to keep up the ecology side of my environmental studies course, though it was discouraging to learn that the conservationists leading the various specialities were all unpaid, unlike the translators. The International Fund helped pay for roughly half the cost of my trip, and I am very grateful for the opportunity and the experience”.

Natalie Holmes

Aimee Myles • February 11, 2020

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  1. Sally Anne BUTLER February 17, 2020 - 10:05 pm Reply

    It is brilliant to hear something of the opportunities offered by the Santander Fund. What a great initiative to enhance students’ perceptions and understanding of cross-cultural issues.

    • Aimee February 26, 2020 - 2:53 pm Reply

      Thanks so much for your comment Sally Anne 🙂

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