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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 November 2007, 12:19 GMT
Romania's horse and cart crackdown
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Romania

If I shut my eyes and think of Romania, I smell apples and hear horses.

Horses in the snow
In the mountains around Ariesen, winter lasts for seven months

The steady clip-clop, but rather the more urgent clippety-clop, clippety-clop of a horse or two pulling a covered wagon down the homeward straight.

On my atlas of Central Europe, published in Budapest on the eve of the World War II, there is even a horse map, each dot representing perhaps 100 horses.

The dots, not surprisingly, become more heavily concentrated the further east your eye wanders.

What would a horse map of Europe look like today, I wonder?

A great white blank for much of the continent but still a healthy number east and south of the rusty old Iron Curtain, like red ants on the page, down over Romania and parts of the Balkans.

There are still an astonishing 750,000 carts registered in Romania as a whole. Yes, carts, not cars.

But now the horses and their owners are in trouble, and it seems they have nowhere to turn.

A new law which bans them and their wagons from all main roads because they are blamed for 10% of all road traffic accidents in the country, is a cruel blow, aimed by the bureaucrats in Bucharest at the solar plexus of their own peasantry.

Confiscation threat

I met Andorin Gligor in the mountain village of Ariesen, where I stood in the market place asking passers-by what they thought of the new regulation.

Ilarie Gligor
If police confiscate any horses and carts they find using the roads... many people will starve
Ilarie Gligor

No-one had a good word to say about it.

Andorin suggested that we go and talk to his father, as long as we did not mind a good walk in the deep snow up the mountain to his house.

I stepped in his tracks in knee-deep, dazzling snow between the pines, leaving the village far below us in the valley.

The horses were cantering wildly about the small yard when we arrived, bells ringing round their necks, enjoying the snow as much as any child might.

They scared the hens from under their hooves, and were watched by a slow-chewing, wide-eyed calf lying in the straw from the safety of the stable.

Ilarie Gligor arrived and tamed the horses in a moment with a soft word and a cob of corn.

He led them both with one hand and harnessed them to his cart as we spoke.

"It takes a long time to take care of horses," he began, "twenty-five, 30 years of my life."

What worries him most is if the police follow through on their threat to confiscate any horses and carts they find using the roads.

So far they have just warned people.

"If that happens," he says simply, "many people will starve.

"Winter here lasts seven months. We use the horses for everything: to travel, to plough the fields.

"But especially to take timber from the woods here down on to the plains to sell. And with the money, we buy food to bring home."

Long winter

A significant proportion of Romania's population lives from subsistence farming.

The mayor of Ariesen, Marin Giurg, admits it is a big problem, especially in places like this where the main road runs right through the middle of the village.

Map of Romania

As mayor, all he can do is to try to gather funds for alternative roads.

But where the mountains slope down so steeply, it is difficult to see where he would build them.

The prefect, the top state official for Alba county, is Cosmin Covaciu.

"It's difficult to convince people not to drive fast," he explained.

I searched his face to confirm he is talking about drivers of cars, not their more ancient wooden equivalents.

"But they're in a hurry to get to their homes or their businesses."

Speeding fines

He told me how many new speed detection devices the county had bought in the past few years and how, right across Romania, the penalties for breaking the limit have increased dramatically.

But he admitted that the regulation on horses was not well thought-out.

Horses on road
It may happen from time to time that a driver falls asleep at the reins but even then the horses usually know where to go
Ilarie Gligor
"That's an issue in Romania all the time," he said, rather offhandedly.

"We put legislation in place and we don't find solutions for the people concerned."

Like the mayor, he sees the answer in the long run as the construction of side roads for horses and carts.

Back in his yard, in snow as white as the icing on a Christmas cake, Ilarie climbed up into his cart to show me his brake pedal.

"Why could they not just ask everyone to wire this up to some lights on the back, like a car?" he suggested.

"Or tell everyone to put reflectors on the back?"

"It may happen from time to time," he added, "that a driver falls asleep at the reins, but even then the horses usually know where to go."

He blamed reckless car drivers for most of the accidents.

Down in the main square, all the horses and carts of the village have congregated.

They have brought their animals to the vet to be vaccinated.

A cheerful young man in a woolly hat, he rubbed the necks of each horse in turn, before applying his syringe.

The horses, with a patience beyond human history, barely flinched.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 November, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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30 Dec 06 |  Europe
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