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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Pistoia > The Tuscan Wetlands
Wetlands: the flora and the fauna of the marshlands of Tuscany

Damiano Andreini

The 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.

The Padule 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 your clothes.

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".

Damiano Andreini
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