FLORA & FAUNA
The long human presence of the Italian peninsula has had a significant impact on the environment, resulting in the widespread destruction of original forests and vegetation and their replacement with crops and orchards. Aesthetically the result is not always displeasing - much of the beauty of Tuscany, for instance, lies in the interaction of olive groves with vineyards, fallow fields and stands of cypress and pine.
Italy's flora is predominantly Mediterranean. Three broad classifications of evergreen tree dominate - ilex (or evergreen oak), cork and pine. The occasional virgin ilex and oak forest still survives in the more inaccessible reaches of Tuscany, Umbria, Calabria, Apulia and Sardinia. These ancient woods are made up of trees that can reach up to 15m high, and whose thick canopies block out light to the forest floor, preventing most undergrowth. Most common are ilex strands that have bee created, or at least interfered with by humans They tend to be sparser, with smaller trees and abundant undergrowth.
Next to the ilex, the most common tree is the cork. Cork wood has been prised since ancient times and not a cork tree that stands today is part of virgin forest. Often they are mixed in with ilex and other oaks, although in Sicily and Sardinia it is possible to come across pure cork forests.
There are three types of pine: the Aleppo pine (the hardiest of the three); the domestic pine, especially common in Tuscany and also known as the umbrella pine for the long, flattened appearance of t its branches; and the maritime pine, which, is spite of its name is generally found further inland than the other two!
Ancient imports that are an inevitable part of much of the Italian countryside (especially from Tuscany south) are the olive and cyprus. The former comes in many shapes and sizes, among the most striking being the robust tree of Apulia.
Much of the country is covered by macchia (maquis), a broad term that covers all sorts of vegetation ranging from two meters to, as much as six meters in height. Herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme are typical maquis plants, as are shrubs of the cistus family, gorse, juniper and heather. If the soil is acidic, there may also be broom. Orchids, gladioli and irises may flower beneath these shrubs, which are colourful in spring.
Where the action of humans and nature has been particularly harsh, or the soil is poor, the macchia becomes gariga, the very barest of scrub. This is dominated by aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme.
The Alps are home to marmots and in increasing number of ibex (mountain goat), chamois and roe deer. In the Parco delle Foreste Casentinesei, in Emilia-Romagna, there are about 1000 deer. Among the native animals on Sardinia are wild boar, the mouflon sheep, deer and a variety of wild cat. You will find evidence of wild boar (and the people who hunt them) throughout the hills and countryside in Italy. Commonly available maps in national parks in the Alps and Apennine range detail the local wildlife and indicate areas where they might be found.
Hunters continue to plunder the countryside for birds. However, enough remain to make bird-watching an interesting pastime. A large variety of falcons and hawks are found throughout Italy, as are many varieties of small birds. The irony is that it is often easier to spot the colourful smaller birds in city parks - among the few refuges they have from the Italian hunter - than in their natural habitats in the countryside. A good place to observe water birds is the Parco Nazionale del Circeo, just south of Rome; huge flocks of flamingos can be seen on Sardinia, just outside Cagliari and near Oristano.
Italy is home to remarkably little dangerous fauna. It has only one poisonous snake, the viper.
The seas around southern Italy and Sicily have been used since ancient times as breeding grounds for blue-fin tuna and swordfish. The Egadi Islands, off the western coast of Sicily, are famous for the bloody netting and filling of tuna that occurs annually between May and June. While the great white shark is know to exist in the Mediterranean, particularly in the southern waters, attacks are extremely rare. Italians will generally respond with a blank stare if you enquire about the presence of sharks.
Italy has 20 national parks, with four more on the way, and well over 400 smaller nature reserves, natural parks and wetlands. The national parks cover just over 1,5 million hectares (5%) of the country. Italy's environmentalists having been campaigning for years to bring the total protected area up to 10% of the land. They have had some success. From 1922 to 1991, only five national parks were created in Italy and their management left a lot to be desired. However, a law passed in 1991 allowed for the creation of 14 new national parks. This goal has been exceeded, although some projects have been slow to come to fruition. For more information check out W www.parks.it , the official Italian national parks Web site.
The five long-standing national parks are Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso (Piedmonte/Valle d'Aosta); Parco Nazionle d'Abruzzo; Parco Nazionale del Circeo (Lazio); Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio (Lombardy/Trentino/Alto Adige); and Parco Nazionale della Calabria. The new national parks include Prco della Val Grande (Piedmont); Parco delle Dolomiti Bellunesi )Veneto); Parcl delle Foreste Casentinesi (Emilia-Romagna); Parco dei Monti Sibillini (Le Marche/Umbria); Parco del Gran SassoMonti della Laga (Abruzzo); Parco della Maiella (Abruzzo); Parco del Vesuvio (Campania); Perco del Cilento e Vallo di Diano (Campania); Parco del Gargano (Apulia); Parco dell'Aspromonte (Calabria); Parco del Pollino (Basilicata/Calabria); Parco dell'Arcipelago Toscano (Tuscany); Parco dell'Arcipelago di la Maddalena (Sardinia); Parco delle Cinque Terre (Liguria); Parco di Gennargentu (Sardinia); and Parco dell'Asinaru (Sardinia).
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