Vegetation and wildlife

The geographic range and evolution of vegetation and wildlife are undoubtedly linked to the climate. This is even truer for plant life, which is mainly affected by temperature and rainfall, but animal behaviour, such as migrations and hibernation, is also related to the same factors.

Animals may escape unfavourable conditions thanks to their mobility, but how can plants live in an extremely harsh environment, as on windy snow-cloaked mountains?

Survival tactics of plants against the climate often translate into morphological adaptation which allows some growth in unfavourable circumstances: as in our high mountain example, some plants assume a creeping or low-lying posture to avoid damage by high winds and shorten their vegetative period to the warm season. They can in this way find an environmental niche too harsh for competing species.

Each plant species is thus adapted to an environment determined specifically by climate and soil profile. This link even allows describing the territory’s climate by the type of present vegetation.

The genesis of ecosystems

During the upper Pleistocene (120.000 to 10.000 years ago) animal life was similar to today’s, with the addition of other species, which in the meanwhile became extinct. (Masseti, 2002).
Among other causes, abrupt climate changes proved too much for the latter to adapt to. The Pleistocene glacial and interglacial periods strongly influenced plant and animal life; these variations caused the same species to move north or southwards, some succumbing and others relocating to more favourable areas.
As a token example, the reindeer and the tundra extended down to the mediterranean during the coldest periods while deer and Mediterranean Scrub were found in what is now Denmark during the warmest ones.

Furthermore, the melting down and accretion of the glaciers during each climatic phase trapped or released great amounts of water, which affected the sea level. This in turn altered the Mediterranean Sea’s palaeogeography both in its coastline and insular masses. For the same reason, during glacial periods coastal scrub was connected to that on islands while during interglacial spots the same were smaller and farther apart from the continent. Many animal species could then colonize the isles during low sea level periods taking advantage of land bridges in shallow areas.(G. Carpaneto, 2002).
Evidence of quaternary wildlife is present in caves and lake deposits. From the latter, widespread in Tuscany, many fossil mammals such as proboscidates, chino, deer and carnivores have been recovered thus allowing the reconstruction the local stratigraphy, crucial in defining those ancient environments.

The great flesh-eaters of the palaeoarctic roamed the northern forests of the region up to the 18th century. Bernardino Boccetti’s fresco depicting a brown bear, found in the Grotta Grande in Boboli Gardens in Florence, dating from 1758, is typical example. The glaciers’ withdrawal, resulting from the subsequent climate changes caused the disappearance of this species from most areas.

Tuscan flora

Tuscany, today still, is thickly forested. That it once was is reflected in past works, Dante Alighieri himself describes the starting point of his otherworldly voyage as “selva selvaggia aspra e forte / che nel pensier rinnova la paura”, referring to the vast forests that blanketed hills, mountains and coastal areas of the region.
Which plant species were present is witnessed by ancient travel diaries, paintings, herbariums and wooden artifacts crafted by artisans in the past. But what is the present situation? The Tuscan Forest Inventory is the instrument that allows us to know the coverage and composition of the present vegetation which comprises a wooded surface of more than a million hectares (1.086.016 ha), equal to 47% Tuscany, including brush and Mediterranean Scrub and other categories.

The flora of hilly areas

Higher elevations display a plant life typical of the inner hill areas, still characterized by a mild climate, the most commonly found being deciduous oaks of which the prevalent are the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) and Durmast Oak (Quercus pubescens) associated with Maple and Hornbeam.

The hills are mainly covered by vast vineyards, terraced or not, and olive groves. Where possible, men have tried to introduce these crops because of their economic value. The wine growing vocation of the Tuscan hills has engendered actual routes, “Le strade del vino”, along which one can find farm wine cellars, holiday farms and cultural, historical and scenic highlights, all specifically aimed at tourists.
The flora of the hills, besides being displayed in a charmingly cultivated landscape, is also mainly represented by deciduous oaks, in particular in the provinces of Grosseto, Siena, Arezzo and Florence. These expanses of oaks, almost all of the first deciduous kind, are largely dominated by Turkey and Durmast oaks, but include other species typical of these heights such as Manna Ash, black and white Hornbeam, Field Maple, Maritime Pine, Arbutus and others.
The Turkey and Durmast oaks are also found in clumps, rows or isolated plants distinctively used as markers or to provide shadow.

Another widespread and almost symbolic species is the Ash, found from the coastal areas to the hilly interior. Folklore associates it to cemeteries; for this reason it has always been held as sacred though at the same time somewhat gloomy. In Tuscany this meaning has however been lost and the ash tree has become a distinctive part of the landscape because of the undeniable aesthetic effect on avenues, hillsides and villas.

The wildlife of hilly areas

The wildlife in the woods plays an important role in local consumption and includes wild boars, who dig mud holes and mark the trees whilst trying to scratch themselves. There are also many roes, foxes, badgers and crested porcupines. Local game included partridges, hares, pheasants, deer, boars and roes, and also thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows, garden warblers, finches and larks. The dormouse was also hunted for food. Spit-roasted fowl, alternated with bread, sage, laurel leaves and lard found their way to the urban middle-class’s tables and Italian gastronomic culture also thanks to Pellegrino Artusi’s “Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” published first in 1891 and still in print.

Birds of prey such as the Buzzard and the Harrier Eagle soar above the woods where blackcaps, whitethroats, robins, blue tits and popinjays.

Vegetation and wildlife in the appennine and apuan belt

The Apennine region stretches as a southeast-to-northwest oriented range. Sheltered from the cold northern and eastern winds it makes up for the bulk of the mountainous territory present in Tuscany. It is marked by peaks and valleys shaped by the underlying rock formations and natural drainage.

The relief, which often rises above 1000 meters, becomes progressively harsher going northeast towards the Apuan Alps, due to the predominant harder marl limestone.

The Apennine displays a wealth of sceneries both as to morphology and types of crops grown. The landscape has been modified long ago by the subsequent farming activities. Traces can be seen where shrubbery has colonized the surface abandoned by agriculture and grazing.

Nevertheless it still retains many almost pristine forest districts, notably the Forest of Vallombrosa, the Sasso Fratino Nature Reserve and the Campolino Forest in the municipality of Abetone, where Spruce (Picea abies) and Silver Fir (Abies alba), both surely native, share along with Beech (Fagus sylvatica) a woodland very close to a primary forest.

Some other pitch-bearing frugal species have been brought in, such as Black Pine (Pinus nigra subs. Laricio) and Austrian Black Pine (Pinus nigra subs. Nigra) on poorer soils in lieu of the preexisting broad-leaved trees. Climbing in height and named after the plant that grows in almost ideal conditions there are two levels:
  • Castanetum (Chestnut, from 450m a.s.l. to 900m a.s.l.)
  • Fagetum (Beech, from 900m a.s.l. to 1450m a.s.l.)
Chestnut (Castanea sativa) thrives at a relatively damper and warmer altitude where suitable for logging. Besides chestnuts, in sunnier spots coppices of many broad-leaved species are present.

The terrain in this height range is marked by copious rainfall, no summer droughts and high humidity; the limiting factor being low temperature, which limits the growth of some species. In this area one can then find mesophyllic and hygronomous trees as beech, some oaks and silver fir. The latter also thrives in spontaneous clumps in places like the Cerreto Pass and Val d’Ozola (Emilian slope), suggesting how widespread this conifer was when the climate was more favourable and its valuable timber wasn’t yet sought after. The beech copses close to the ridges have a protective function due to their firmness facing the high winds in the area. These copses can suffer from unseasonal frost or very dry years, and still, rime, which in Apennine and Alpine zones affected by low clouds and fog on sub-zero days can occur. A further drop in snowfall could seriously harm the species.
Below 1300m a.s.l. , one can find Plane-tree Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), Linden (Tilia platyphyllus), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) and Ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Below 1000 m a.s.l. , Turkey Oak predominates, and in places chestnut groves are still kept. Beyond the Apuan Alps and the reach of mild Tyrrhenian air the cold continental winds create quasi-alpine conditions reflected by plants and wildlife found at higher elevations as in the province of Massa Carrara.

Above 1700m a.s.l. Heather and grasses grow. Sporadically emerging from the blueberry heather is the Mountain Ash (Sorbus chamaesespilus), barely over a meter tall, seldom found in the Apennine. At comparable altitude, in dark spots where the snow lingers, heather has been turned by grazing into an interesting pasture characterized by the Spikenard (Nardus stricta), a grass unpalatable to sheep and well adapted to extreme conditions. Along the wind-beaten ridges there’s another type of mountain grassland, this one marked by the presence of the Highland Rush (Juncus trifidus), a spindly plant barely ten centimeters tall able to withstand strong winds.

Plant, and in lesser measure, animal life, number a host of “ice age relics”, species who colonized the northern Apennine and survived, after the retreat of the ice, only in the coldest locations, as isolated witnesses of a past climate. One example is the common European Brown Frog, which in Italy is only found on the Alps and in the creeks of the beech and silver fir forests above 1000 meters.
Farmland, pasture and thickets shelter some of the exceedingly rare Yellowhammers (Emberiza citronella) still nesting in Tuscany and several other uncommon birds such as the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) and the Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia).
Blueberries are a treat for the Snow Vole (Chionomys nivalis), who migrated to the Apennine during the last Ice Age. Among other small passerines there are the Skylark (Alauda arvensis), the Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta); associated to them is the Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), typically Alpine, very uncommon in the Apennine.
During the spring and summer months the passerines feed on their staple diet of insects and seeds in elevated ridge grasslands.

Daytime birds of prey like the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), the Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) use the grasslands as hunting grounds, nesting at lower heights. The Golden Eagle is namely present with several nesting couples.

Among the mammals, the two most widely, though patchily, represented species of small ungulates are the Fallow Roe (Capreolus capreolus, 1758) (Picture below) and the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa, 1758).
Their number has been expanding due to depopulation, diminished use of the woodlands and lesser competition for food from free-range livestock (Casanova, Capaccioli, Cellini, 1993). The native Red Deer and Roe, once almost wiped out by poaching, have been reintroduced and their swelling numbers have been posing a problem for the nurseries and reforestation programs.
The nonnative Fallow Deer, the Feral Pig and the Mouflon have been introduced to promote hunting. The oak and beech forests are populated by boars, fallow and red deer that feed in the clearings and on the shrubs, wandering uphill during the summer. Most interesting is the presence of the wolf. In the Apennines it usually lives in a habitat ranging between 800m and 1600m a.s.l. where beech woods and grasslands prevail. This mammal now survives thanks to protection and the fresh availability of prey such as fallow deer, red deer and mountain goats. The high meadows are the premium environment for groundhogs.

Other mammals worth mentioning are: wild cats, sometimes found in the woodlands, the Otter (Lutra lutra), almost wholly replaced by the Coypu, as well as the Hare (Lepus europaeus), Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and Badger (Meles meles).
In the western part of the region are the Apuan Alps: a short mountain range often compared to the Pre-Alps because of its steep slopes and high peaks.
The geological history of the area has resulted in a very complex, selective, ecosystem. The peculiar microclimates, the nature of the soil, the role of the climate, and, not least, man, have engendered a variety of environmental niches, thus favoring the rise of many endemic (i.e. only found in place) species, as the Borla Thistle (Centaurea montis-borlae) and the Apennine Globularia (Globularia incanescens).

Timber resources have not been harvested much by the local population and so in some areas vegetation has grown thick and uncontaminated. There are oaks, black hornbeam, mountain beech and centuries-old chestnuts (that in the past provided a staple food) and the typical species present in Mediterranean scrub.

The peculiar microclimates found in the Apuan Alps have caused some plants to evolve from the original species. On the high meadows primroses, gentian violets and crocus occur, while further downhill ferns, cyclamen, roses, daffodils, orchids, lilies and other flowers abound. Contrary to the flora, the Apuan wildlife has not developed any peculiar traits. More relevant than specific species, their concurring presence can be noted as a reflection of the characteristics of this habitat.
As for bird life, mostly represented are the Crag Martin (Hirundo rupestris), the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Picoides minor), the Wallcreeper (Tichodoma muraria), the Kestrel (Falco tinninculus), the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), the Red-billed (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and Alpine Chough, (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and the Golden Eagle (Aquila Chrysaetos).

Amphibians abound, among them the Spectacled Salamander, the Alpine Newt, the Fire Salamander, the Italian Cave Salamander. Mammals include squirrels, weasels, martens, otters, skunks, foxes, dormice, fallow and red deer.