> The Wetlands of Tuscany
the flora and the fauna of the marshlands of Tuscany
silence of Tuscany means that it offers some unusual discoveries,
strange creatures with odd appearances and graceful gestures.
These creatures are the main characters of a millenarian history
and can be found in environments that are apparently hostile,
but that provide a home where they grow up, play and hunt.
Their names are odd: Buzzacchiotto, Forbicina, Nonnotto, and
1000s of others. The creatures are not gnomes nor elves who
do not have a place in our traditions. In fact, they are the
inhabitants of the Tuscan
Wetlands. Following the map of Tuscany, we may consider
the Wetlands as a stripe through the territory which extends
in from Florence to Pisa for about 70 kilometres. The Tuscany
Wetlands today constitute the remains of a much larger ecosystem
of not such a long time ago. In fact at the end of the Middle
Ages, large areas of the low-lying countryside was covered with
bogs and reed thickets which divided Tuscany in two.
The Etruscans and then the Romans began some work to divert
the stagnant waters but the real work of reclamation was carried
out in more modern times thanks to the intervention of the Medici
family and laterly of the Lorena family in the 18th century.
There are detailed accounts from travellers coming from France
or northern Italy, pilgrims and merchants who used wooden boats
or barges to cross these damp and unhealthy valleys. Further
reclamation was needed both to improve the quality of life in
the area but more importantly, economic motives that involved
stamping the Lorena style on the area. The improvemento of the
land would bring new arable plains allowing for significant
agricultural development and new settlements, a huge advantage
for the entire Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Since then and in spite
of the difficulties locals have always lived next to and exploited
the Wetlands. In the villages of the neighboring hills around
these areas the economies were based around the marshland.
di Fucecchio provided wicker and acacia to cover
flasks and demijohns, chair seats that Tuscany is famous for,
huge quantities of rushes and reeds to make the famous mats
(called "stoie" in the Tuscan dialect) used for the storage
of the olives and figs, the binding of tomatoes and even today
as wind shelter screens in the gardens of farmhouses. Ask the
owner of an agriturismo and he will tell you that the mats come
from Massarella area. But it wasn't only reeds that were harvested
from the wetlands. The wetlands were populated by rich fauna
and where the wetlands were deepest, for example, Bientina 20
km. about from Pisa, the fishing was good. Bientina was definitely
drained towards the end of 19th century.
Thanks to the preservation of the existing areas, though smaller
today and menanced by the continuous threat of the Greenhouse
Effect, very special and natural habitats can still be explored.
The environments where the different microclimates favour the
survival of species of flora and fauna, which have now become
extinct elsewhere. At the beginning of this newsletter I was
talking about the Forbicina (Bidens Tripartita) or the Trifid
Bur marigold, a small plant that grows rapaciously in the wild
swamp areas. Take this piece of information into account and,
if you have the chance to take a walk down the valleys close
to the wetlands, note the tiny burs that hook themselves to
This is the fruit of the Forbicina (Bidens tripartita), which
has very clever way of spreading its seeds. How is your eye
sight? You may have the chance to watch, amongst the reed thickets,
another curious inhabitant of the Tuscany Wetlands: the Nonnotto
Botarus Stellaris or the Bittern. A particular kind of heron
which spends most of the year in Tuscany, eating fish and insects
by standing still with its beak turned upwards. In this pose
it is easily mistaken as the surrounding vegetation. During
the spring the Nonnotto issues a strange melody which can be
heard up to one kilometre away! The wetlands being swampy are
inundated by mosquitoes and in the 1920s someone imported the
formidable Buzzacchiotto (Gambusia Affinis), a small fish not
more than 5 cm long from the United States or Mexico.
Small but extremely greedy for mosquito larvae of which it can
its own weight each day - more or less as if you ate 60kg of
spaghetti each day. It would take too much time to tell you
all the thousands of animal and vegetable species populating
the Wetlands of Tuscany, therefore I'll limit my introduction
to you to two other species only, a reptile and an insect, both
of which I have known since my childhood. In fact, the first
time I met the Biacco or Coluber Vividiflavus, about 20 years
ago. A large snake, yellow on the bottom, and dark green on
the upper part, which came every summer with a female friend
of his to sunbath on the brick roof of an old wood-burning oven
close to my home.
I was never frightened by it, with its brilliant colors and
those large eyes in a rounded head, it is completely innocuous.
Finally, I would like to mention to you the Ragno d'Acqua or
the common pond skater, Gerris Lacustris. Which is an insect
with a small body and three pairs of long legs which are kept
bent just like a spider: the four back legs have got a sort
of downy hydrophobic hairs which enable it to slide easily over
the water. It is an extraordinary species and it can be easily
found in every pond. I remember that when I was child my friends
and I observed its agile and fast movements and it seemed to
us an elegant ice-skater.
Of course, the Tuscan Wetlands also hosts the Purple Heron,
the Cormorant, the White Stork, the Hawk of Padule, the Crane,
the Kingfisher and numerous other species of birds, mammals,
reptiles, and invertebrates. some further information here.
Each one of the Wetlands organizes guided tours with specialized
personnel staff and offers picture exhibitions and educational
material at the entrance, at the observation points and along
the paths. By the way! If you are to come to Florence and you
would like to go more in depth about this subject, you could
go and see a beautiful exhibition about the Wetlands of northern
Tuscany at the Museum of Natural History "la Specola".