Conservation of endangered tree species
in the Apenines, Italy
Silver fir Abies alba, spruce fir Picea excelsa and yew Taxus baccata are rare in the whole Apenine mountain chain and only survive in reduced and fragmented relict populations. These relict populations not only constitute genetically different races in the Apenines, but they also differ from those found in the Alps.
The populations of the tree species in Emilia Romagna, where two LIFE-Nature projects took place, consist of very aged individuals with limited natural regeneration possibilities. Forestry practices since the early 20th century, which favoured sucker-producing trees, and the planting of beech Fagus sylvatica stands, together with increased livestock grazing within the forests, further worsened the status of these tree species.
Significance of the LIFE-projects
Small-scale monitoring and interventions, financed by the Emilia-Romagna region before the start of the LIFE-Nature projects, revealed an urgent need to stop the further decline of these relict populations. Hence, the two LIFE-Nature projects laid the basis for the protection of the species and for the sustainable management of the Apennine forests; especially in the areas where these endangered conifers occur.
The first project, in 1995, increased knowledge of these relictual habitat types and tested the first conservation measures; the second project in 1997 further improved and implemented these measures and stimulated a wider dissemination of the acquired experience.
An inventory was completed in order to obtain an accurate picture of the distribution of the targeted tree species. All nuclei were located and their species composition and structure were recorded and mapped (using GPS). Where needed, even single trees were mapped and the surrounding vegetation was recorded.
This study allowed the management methodology for safeguarding the Apennine silver fir and spruce fir forests to be formulated: presence of open areas, protection against ungulates. In fact, the inventory clearly indicated that disturbance and competition is indeed a very significant negative factor. All the populations examined showed serious modifications due to past timber harvesting and livestock browsing.
Combining in-situ with ex-situ management
The seed viability of the target species was also analysed. Seeds were collected of all three species targeted by the project. They were kept in a special nursery and cared for by the “Boschi di Carrega” regional park. Seed viability was tested and seeds were germinated, taking due care during the process that the exact origin of the plant material was recorded.
It was necessary to collect as many seeds as possible, as their viability proved to be very low, probably due to the extreme conditions in which the donor plants were living. This explanation is supported by the much higher viability of the seeds from the Lago Verde site, where the environmental conditions are significantly milder. Nevertheless, despite the problems of low viability, good results were attained in the end as the nursery was able to produce sufficient numbers of silver fir and spruce fir plants. Micro-propagation was also used to reproduce plants (in particular yew plants).
Re-directing forest management
Fencing was established to prevent livestock from browsing regenerating young silver fir. The fences were regularly checked for damage and illicit livestock movement; private landowners participated in this surveillance. Finally, near Monte La Nuda the local silver fir populations were protected against the on-going erosion with remedial engineering works. This erosion was caused by previous works for a nearby ski resort and, in some sections, was directly affecting fir nuclei.
Conversion of coppicing to uneven-aged tall stands of timber
The sylvicultural practice of coppicing was the direct cause of the fragmentation and disappearance of Apennine beech forests with Abies alba and Taxus. Therefore, conversion of coppice towards uneven-aged tall mixed forest is an important “strategic investment” undertaken by these projects. Such forest management measures were carried out near the indigenous nuclei of conifers.
The projects’ pioneering work has since been much reinforced by a national Italian law (General prescriptions of forestry policy) which prohibits the re-conversion to coppice of tall forest stands which have been the recipient of public funding.
The sylvicultural interventions carried out by these projects were innovative and quite different from those used in productive forestry. Timber workers were not used to these new management techniques, and at first they had to be kept under constant supervision during their work by a forestry technician (in the past, it happened more than once that unsupervised workers pruned and even felled relic Abies alba trees).
However, the outcome was successful as the workers, assisted by appropriate training given by the conservation authorities, eventually learned how to apply these new techniques efficiently. This is a significant investment for the future, as the Emilia Romagna Region intends to apply this type of management to most forests on its territory.
Information transfer and seminars
The project was accompanied by several PR measures: articles in local newspapers, scientific seminars, establishment of hiking trails to the Vezzosa nursery or to relict populations (Lago Verde), videos, broadcasts by the local TV and internet sites. The studies carried out during the LIFE-Nature projects are now being used in the elaboration of the forest management plans of many forestry estates in the Emilia Romagna region
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