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Italian Cultural Landscapes

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Wood-pasture and wood-meadow in the Ligurian-Tuscan-Aemilian Apennines, Italy

A now rapidly declining farming system, that was widespread in the Apennines until the end of 19th century, still survives in a few areas of high environmental value in the north-western Apennines. These areas include ancient sites of summer pasture (alpi) linked by transhumance to winter pastures in both coastal areas and lowlands in the Po plain. Old pollarded Fagus (beech) trees and shredded Quercus cerris (Turkey oak) can be found – and sometimes still used as a source of leaves and timber – in the mountains between Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Only occasional fir trees (Abies) survive, relicts of past wood-pasture. The system is documented also for central and southern Italy (Molise and Abruzzo). The historical-ecological value of these mixed systems of trees and farmed land requires great recognition that hitherto accorded by Italian environmental conservation plans.

A ‘fossil’ parcel of pollarded Fagus located in the Trebbia valley, at ca. 1300 m altitude, on the slopes of Montarlone mountain appears to be a relict of a wood-meadow system for fodder production. It was used in the context of alpi for transhumant sheep rearing that operated until the end of 19th century. This important example of the use of beech for fodder was possibly connected with the local cattle breed, Cabannina, which is well adapted to wood-pasture.

Unusual growth forms of beech occur within a coppice wood that resulted from a cut for charcoal in 1930. The peculiar shape of the old beech is due to abandonment of pollarding and grazing practices and development of suckers. The herb layer is poorly developed due to the heavy leaf litter deposit. Polygonatum verticillatum, considered a characteristic species of the highest beech woodlands in the Ligurian Apennines, survives probably as a relict of the 19th century wood-meadows. Placenames and early documentary sources for this area record temporary agricultural practices (ronchi) with the use of controlled fire (fornaci).

Studies have also been carried out at Prati di Sara which lies at 1600 m altitude in the Secchia valley, Reggio Emilia. These show that herb biomass and favourable fodder species are more frequent in wood-pasture than in nearby treeless pasture. Shepherds in high medieval times knew and managed this savanna-like system to produce good quality pasture, hay and fodder. A pollen diagram from the nearby bog site of Prato Spilla suggests that the wood-meadow system originated in the Lombard period (6th century AD). Also, the long handled, iron scythe was first used in the management of north Apennine grasslands at about this time.

At the Bandito di Amborzasco (1150 m altitude), a pasture/hay meadow with Q. cerris still survives. The site is called ronco in a 1822 description of the common land of the parish. This indicates that cereals (oats and rye) were grown from time to time, in the context of a tree management system that included shredding, mowing and use of confined fire. Because of the abandonment of mowing and grazing since the 1970s, Corylus has largely overgrown the wooded-meadow system and the system is rapidly degrading.

Mogge di Ertola, Aveto valley, Ligurian Apennines: evidence of past cultural landscapes

The interest in the environmental history of the Ligurian Apennines (NW Italy) derives from a more than ten year long field research that archeobotanists, historical geographers and local historians have devoted to the study of the environmental effects of agro-sylvo-pastoral practices in the area: the prehistorical and historical ecology that shaped the present cultural landscape. We know, in fact, that this area has been inhabited since at least 10,000 years ago (Mesolithic), and has undergone serious human-induced transformations starting from 8,000 years ago (Neolithic). At that same time the important climatic changes that characterized the Italian territory were influencing the distribution of the vegetation of these mountain environments. The Mogge di Ertola plateau, the site is described here, seems to preserve important information on the history of the Italian Apennine mountain woodlands as, for example, the disappearance of the white fir from the forests. Also, in the present-day landscape we find traces that hint to various past land uses, like mountain pasture and transhumance, and particular practices involving the drainage of wetland areas.

The site at Mogge di Ertola consists of a clearing, located at 1100 m altitude, which includes buried bog deposits. These deposits have provided proof (tree trunks, seeds, fruit, pollen, archaeological remains) for the study of proto-historical and historical land uses, and the evolution of the local wooded landscape. In the proto-historical phase (Bronze Age) land use was based on a pastoral economy consisting of a network of water sources, artificial basins and wooded pastures.

The present appearance of the site is probably influenced by drainage that was carried out on this wet basin. Today, a beech forest characterizes the surroundings, while at lower elevation, turkey oak becomes more frequent, especially on the dry soils of the steep, rocky slopes facing south. The tall shrub layer includes wild cherry, whitebeam and red elderberry. The plateau, on the other hand, is characterized by prevailingly herbaceous vegetation, which varies mainly with the wetness of the soils.

The environmental reconstruction suggests that widespread fir woodlands characterized the Mesolithic landscape. During the Bronze Age a mixed deciduous forest dominated by beech, oak, hazel, and alder conquered the territory. At last, the early medieval landscape was certainly more open and interestingly, fir had practically disappeared from the surrounding woodlands.

As for many of the Italian historical landscapes the key issue concerns the causes of these transformations: human-induced phenomena or natural processes? The combination of documentary sources and on-site proof allows a better perception of the social factors influencing the evolution of the landscape. All of the sources attest the shifting from one cultural landscape, a possibly managed fir forest, to another, the wooded beech pasture. The present-day clearing was formed starting from medieval times.

Unfortunately in the past decades, the abandonment of rural practices in the area is causing a new closure of the vegetation and the disappearance of these ancient grasslands and pastures.

Fir tree trunks dug from the buried peat bog
Fir tree trunks dug from the buried peat bog

Alpi infernose: transhumance and cheese making in the Ligurian-Aemilian Apennines

That part of the Ligurian Apennines between Liguria and Emilia extends over three provinces, Genova, Parma and Piacenza, and is considered, from a natural history viewpoint, the richest in the Ligurian Apennines. Features include high mountain grasslands, wetlands and stony terrain of glacial origin. Plants with an Alpine distribution have isolated stations here. These include species with southern Italian limits in this area, endemic species, glacial relicts and other rare plants. The area is part of the Regional Natural Park of Aveto and includes Natura 2000 sites.

Despite negative impact of EU rules on cheese production, local cheese making based in local farmsteads and known in the 18th and 19th centuries as formaggio di Chiavari or formaggio di Santo Stefano d’Aveto still survives in the commune of Santo Stefano d’Aveto which is noted for its pleasant pastoral slopes. This local cheese production involves a resource-management integrated system with a cycle of specific practices during the year that serve to maintain specific cultural landscapes such as terraced hay meadows and small scattered fields of crops such as oats and clover.

A feature of domestic San Stè is the great variety of cheeses produced in different hamlets that is linked to the diversity of the pastures and differences in local history. This variety is reflected also in ricotta and sarazzu cheeses that are also produced locally.

In the last fifteen years, domestic cheese production coexists with semi-industrial production by the local dairy. The so-called standard and typical San Sté are cheeses that “the time did not change”, according to the marketing blurb of the local dairy. The result is that these so-called typical products have the effect of displacing the richness and variety of the traditionally produced cheeses.

The historical ecological study of an ancient grassland site (Prato di Curio), that was still managed for the domestic production of the San Stè cheese, provided supporting evidence that the local traditional practice of cattle rearing favours both habitat and species diversity. At Curio (1370 m altitude), on the other hand, after 10 years of abandonment of management of the herb cover, valuable fodder species and rare and protected species including orchids were lost in favour of a few aggressive and competitive species.

Historical research has identified the study area as an important summer pasture that was still in use in the 19th century, when it was referred to as alpi infernose. Seasonal flock movements from the coast (the Riviera) and the Po plain extended as far as the summer pasture of alpi infernose. This was possibly linked to farming activities by the monastery of Bobbio and the high-medieval monastery of S. Giulia of Brescia (Lombardia) which had its main summer pastures in Val Camonica but these extended as far as the alpi infernose (ca. 16th to 20th centuries).

Transhumance has probably had a role in the presence of species such as Festuca spectabilis and Sesleria uliginosa at a considerable distance from their centres in the north-eastern Italian Alps and Friuli. Sheep, because of their dense, curly and greasy wool, act as semi-natural, long-distance transporters of plant propagules.

The historical aspects of biodiversity in the alpi infernose are not widely recognised. Ancient grasslands are a historical construct; if they are to be maintained, it is important to investigate their largely hidden history and assist the farmers, who have inherited the practical experience of their forefathers, in maintaining them and their high biodiversity for future generations.