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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Woods are good! Well are they always?

"You ought to do a blog" they used to said. "Yeah, I know!" I'd reply, Andy Pipkin-style, trying to change the subject. Well, finally, here it is.

A photo of the village of Monteaperta in the Prealps north of Udine in
NE Italy taken in the 1950s, from
Foreste, uomo, economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia AA.V.V.. – Udine, Museo friulano di storia naturale, 1986, 223 pp.

A contrarian and hotly-contested article appeared a few days ago on National Geographic's Italian website entitled "La crescita incontrollata dei boschi italiani" - "The uncontrolled spread of Italian woodlands". To a UK-based reader this might come as a shock. Having reached a minimum of 5% or so in 1918, British forest cover has slowly clawed its way back, in spite of 20 million sheep, to 13% or so, the highest level for a 1000 years even if it doesn't seem to have done much for the fate of the country's woodland birds. It's seen as an unalloyed positive as it often is in Italy. 
A photo of the same village, Monteaperta  taken in the mid-1980s, from
Foreste, uomo, economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia AA.V.V.. – Udine, Museo friulano di storia naturale, 1986, 223 pp.


What are the numbers for Italy? Well, Italy covers 30,127,700 hectares and there are now 10.9 million hectares of woodland or 32.6% of its land surface, a figure that has risen by 3 million hectares (more that Britain's total forest cover), in just 30 years and up from just 4 million hectares 80 years ago!  The Region I live in, Friuli Venezia Giulia, now has almost 50% forest cover, up from 10% at the end of the Second World War when forests covered just 10% of the Region's c. 800,000 hectares!

Monteaperta in 2010, squeezed ever more tightly by the surrounding forest 
What on Earth Is Going On?

Even he seems unhappy with the outcome!
Italy is organised is very differently from UK from a legal and social perspective. One of the main differences is legal, with the application of the Napoleonic Code as the basis of Private Law that sees property inheritance dictated by degree of relatedness and not by whim (your "will" decides only a small part of what you leave when you die and to whom). Not for the Italians (other than part of a single Region in the North, Alto Adige) is there the option of Majorat, the passing of the farm to the eldest son. This means that with every generation land holdings are split up between all the children (or other relatives if the person dies 'without issue'), many of whom may have emigrated or moved away to the cities in search of work. The end result is massively fractionated holdings and huge amounts of effectively abandoned land, especially in the uplands where it is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to put together a viable single land holding. People may own quite a few hectares but these are often split into tiny pieces with difficult access in broken terrain.

Winners and losers

Canadair. More forest means more fires and more expenditure
A simplistic view of this, and one parroted by the politicians, is that all this is a wonderful thing but it is really just a side-product of abandonment, emigration and depopulation. What's more, Italy spends
many millions of Euros a year fighting forest fires with aircraft, helicopters and ground forces (Forestry police, Civil Protection and volunteer fire-fighters and their equipment) together with millions more on infrastructure projects (forest roads and fire-ponds) to make their work easier.

Winners there are, apart from the individuals and companies in the civil protection business. As people and their grazing animals have moved out, wild ungulates (roe deer and red deer and wild boar) have moved in with growing numbers of wolves on their tail, the latter's numbers growing from  a minimum of about 100 in 1970 to almost 2000 animals in 2015. Other animals are arriving too as the forest spreads and as people leave, including brown bears and golden jackals coming from Slovenia where forest cover recently exceed 50%. "Nasties" too, are gaining and as wild ungulates increase so do ticks Ixodes sp. and with them Lyme disease and the newly-arrived tick-borne encephalitis.

It's not just mammals either. Other organisms associated with woodland are doing well and several species of previously-rare or localised woodpeckers including black, grey-headed, middle and lesser spotted woodpeckers are spreading rapidly, particularly in the north-east of the country. Various plants and insects restricted to woodland are benefitting including the European peony Paeonia officinalis.

Rock Partridge (Alectoris graeca). Once abundant in the Karst
above Trieste but extinct since the late 1980s due to scrub
encroachment of its habitat
(Photo: by the author, Pag Island, Croatia, 2015)
The losers however, are many more as abandonment sees open habitats scrub-over and vanish in the uplands or subject to heavy modification by agricultural intensification and development in the lowlands and plains. In the Karst above Trieste alone 15 or 16 species of birds are now locally extinct (ext.) or endangered (end.) including rock partridge (ext.), ortolan bunting skylark (ext.), tawny pipit (end.), wryneck (end.) and corn bunting (end.). Where endangered ones do hang on, such as at the Alture di Polazzo, 100 ha of well-managed grazing, it is where humans and their domestic animals persist as well. The same applies to other elements of the flora and fauna too, with plants and insects losing habitat to scrub and woodland but doing well in traditionally-managed settings.

What to do?

The problem is difficult to resolve if there is not the political will to tackle it, especially at a time of austerity. Land rationalisation and consolidation is a must to create viable agricultural units in the uplands but thus far little has been done away from lowland areas in the 1970s and 1980s when boosting production was seen as important. Until people can see a future for themselves in the uplands within Italy then depopulation and decline will continue until woodland covers the entire Alpine  and Appenine chains. The wolf is at the door.

The Trnova Forest wolf pack, just 15km from Italy's NE border. 


  1. Paul - excellent first blog. Raises a very key issue that is an issue elsewhere in Europe as well (eg the Cevennes in France). As I said in my retweet of the Trees per square km in Europe map this morning, trees can be weeds in the wrong place.
    Feel sure I should start blogging, but as I have only just adopted Twitter, it may be some way off: retirement beckons in 4 years!

    Chris Gibson

    1. Thanks v. much Chris. I could have gone on (and on). It's symptomatic of rural and even societal decline but so far very few people are talking about it. Britain has been able to paper over the cracks with mass immigration (indeed worsening depopulation elsewhere in Europe). I'm sure this is a topic I'll be returning to.