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Padule di Fucecchio

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The Padule di Fucecchio: a historical-environmental treasure

The Padule di Fucecchio, a naturalistic jewel, extends over a vast territory of 1,800 hectares, embracing the provinces of Pistoia and Florence. Located between the picturesque regions of Valdinievole and Montalbano, this splendid ecosystem represents the largest inland marshy area in Italy.

This wonderful habitat, a true paradise for birdwatchers, is the habitat  for an extraordinary diversity of plants, ranging from the royal fern to the large sedge, from the utricolaria, a small carnivorous plant, to the frogbit. But that’s not all, the marshes are also home to an extraordinary variety of birds, with 200 species, among which the majestic crane, t he elusive black stork and the elegant herons stand out.

Although today the marshes are significantly smaller than the vast extension of the lake-marshes that once dominated the southern Valdinievole, this magical place maintains its extraordinary naturalistic value intact. Approximately 230 hectares of this precious territory are protected through Natural Reserves, established by the Provincial Administrations of Pistoia and Florence, while the rest of the basin is part of the relevant Contiguous Areas.

The Padule di Fucecchio play a crucial role in the migratory routes that connect the Tyrrhenian coast to the hinterland. In particular, during the reproductive period, herons create one of the most significant nesting colonies in central-southern Italy. Seven different species of these majestic birds stop here: the Night Heron, the Little Egret, the Squacco Heron, the Cattle Egret, the Purple Heron, the Gray Heron and the Great White Heron. This phenomenon makes the marshes a place of extraordinary importance for the conservation and observation of avian species, adding a further level of wonder to its already rich naturalistic diversity.

Padule di Fucecchio
Padule di Fucecchio (Photo by Pamela Doretti / CC BY)

How the Padule di Fucecchio were formed

Its formation is the result of a slow raising of the Arno bed, caused by the deposition of alluvial sediments. This accumulation hindered the natural flow of water coming from Valdinievole, giving life to this fascinating swamp. The surrounding region feeds the area with various waterways, including the Pescia di Pescia, the Pescia di Collodi, the Pescia Nuova and the Borra, Nievole, Vincio and other minor streams.

From a geological point of view, its formation dates back to 6 million years ago, in the Pliocene period, when Valdinievole emerged from the sea and was gradually filled by sediments transported by the numerous watercourses. Over the centuries, these sediments, finding obstacles to their natural flow, contributed to the emergence of this swamp.

History of the Padule

During the medieval period, the first works were undertaken to drain the Padule di Fucecchio. In 1279, a decree was issued ordering the demolition of the mills, weirs and any other obstacle along the Usciana watercourse. However, as governments changed, attitudes towards this land also changed on various occasions. During the dominion of Florence, the Padule became a real lake due to the barriers erected at Ponte a Cappiano. This decision had profound consequences on the local landscape and sparked protests from landowners in the area. Over the centuries, the contradictory policies of the Medici alternated interventions in Ponte a Cappiano with modest reclamation efforts, which favored the creation of seven farms.

After many vicissitudes, including malarial epidemics that hit the population hard, in the 18th century Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo undertook significant initiatives for the hydraulic and sanitary rehabilitation of the area. These actions included the demolition of fisheries resulting in the forfeiture of profits from fishing, mills and land rights around the marshes. The Grand Duke wanted to promote agriculture and trade in the area and directly involved landowners in planning reclamation works through the creation of a Deputation in 1781. However, due to low financial contribution, the Deputation was dissolved two years later. In 1786, a new “water consortium” was established, allowing interested parties to manage reclamation operations independently, under the supervision of public authorities. In 1803 the “Consorzio coattivo dei proprietari dei terreni del Padule di Fucecchio” was established for the maintenance of the waterways, allowing navigation and agriculture.

After the unification of Italy, attention to the Marshes continued, including its inclusion in state reclamation programs in 1928. This led to the creation of the “Reclamation Consortium” in 1931.

What to see: flora, fauna and historical presences

Flora and fauna of the Padule di Fucecchio: an incredible natural oasis

Although significantly reduced compared to its ancient state, the Padule di Fucecchio remains a precious wetland of exceptional naturalistic interest. With an area of 2081 hectares that extend between the provinces of Florence and Pistoia, it constitutes the largest internal marshland in Italy. Its central core, known as the “Crater,” undergoes significant seasonal variations, being almost completely dry in summer and filled with water in winter. This basin, with a maximum depth of approximately 3 metres, collects the waters of rivers and streams coming from a vast catchment basin. These waters then flow into the main canals, known as the Canale del Capannone and the Canale del Terzo, which merge into the Canale Maestro, which changes its name to Usciana a Ponte a Cappiano.

The Marshes, as previously mentioned, are home to a rich variety of flora and fauna. You can find mammals, fish, molluscs, arthropods, bacteria, protozoa, algae, fungi and microorganisms of various types. This ecosystem attracts boreal, alpine, high-montane and even Euro-Siberian plants, which adapted and survived here after arriving from northern Europe during the ice ages. The unique microclimate created in the Marshes has made the coexistence of botanical species coming from warm or oceanic climates with those of Nordic and glacial origin possible. Among the different types of marsh vegetation, we include the sedges with their characteristic “sarello” tufts, the reeds, the laminetes, the humid meadows, the humid woods and the florid fern.

From a faunal point of view, herons play a particularly important role, with the largest colony in central-southern Italy during the reproductive period. This colony is home to species such as the heron heron, the little egret, the night heron, the gray heron, the purple heron, the cattle egret, the great egret, and others, including the black ibis and the sacred ibis , recently spotted. The muddy areas offer habitat to shorebirds such as snipe, lapwings, curlews, godwits, while the reed beds are the kingdom of rails, including the coot, the moorhen, the water rail, as well as bitterns and numerous passerines such as the nightingale of Fiume, the bluethroat, the miles, the pendolino, the forapaglie, the diamond, just to name a few. Ducks dominate in the bodies of water, including mallards, teals, pintails, wigeons, shovelers, pochards, garganeys, shelducks, ferruginous ducks and many others. Over the years, pink flamingos have been spotted during their spectacular courtship ritual, while white storks have returned after centuries of absence in Tuscany. The area is also a refuge for numerous birds of prey, including the marsh harrier, the kestrel, the kite, the osprey and the hobbies. The presence of over a thousand species of beetles in the marshy area should not be overlooked. The mammal fauna is equally fascinating, with foxes, badgers, skunks, porcupines and others populating the area. A special mention goes to the frog features.

Padule di Fucecchio
Padule di Fucecchio (Photo by Pamela Doretti / CC BY)

Historical presences: a deep connection with the past

Evidence of human interaction with the marshes and its economic relevance in the past still persists today in a significant way. Canals, ports and industrial archeology structures bear witness to its history.

In the municipal area there are three imposing buildings which represent unique examples of industrial archeology and which in the past were used to dry the tobacco grown in abundance in the area.

In particular, the Shed, an ancient river port, is notable for its multifunctional structure that includes grain storage, winemaking, boat building and maintenance, as well as residential functions for security personnel.

These structures, even today, clearly retain traces of their original functions. The restoration of the buildings could not only contribute to the recovery of an important historical heritage, but also to the understanding of the history of this territory.

Furthermore, the characteristic “casotti” that dot the landscape were essential for activities related to the exploitation of marsh resources, such as fishing, hunting and the collection of reeds and grasses.

All these historical testimonies are easily accessible through various itineraries, which can be followed for most of the year, with the exception of periods of heavy rain which could flood the paths.

The Padule is also a place of memory, with numerous plaques commemorating the victims of a tragic event: the massacre carried out by retreating German soldiers on 23 August 1944, as evidenced by the epigraphs present in the Capannone canal and at the tobacco drying plant to “Pratogrande”.

Establishment of the Nature Reserve

Since 1982, the Tuscany Region has promoted the creation of protected areas, parks and nature reserves in Tuscany. The municipalities involved, together with the province, collaborated to promote the establishment of these protected areas, with the aim of making the Padule di Fucecchio a primary naturalistic center and an element of reorganization of the entire Valdinievole. In 1995, the Region issued rules for the establishment and management of provincial nature reserves, leading to the establishment of the Riserva Naturale “Padule di Fucecchio” in 1996, with the adoption of a regulation in 1997. This reserve aims to protect and enhance the natural environment, promote wildlife, improve agricultural production and promote sustainable tourism. Furthermore, it focuses on study programs and scientific research to understand and balance natural ecosystems and landscapes, improving the relationship between humans and nature.

Guided tours

Those who wish to explore this precious protected area can direct their steps towards the Visitor Center of the Riserva Naturale del Padule di Fucecchio, located in Castelmartini, in the municipality of Larciano. This welcoming center is a true oasis of knowledge, where you can admire permanent and temporary exhibitions that celebrate the beauty of the wetland. Furthermore, the Visitor Center organizes exciting guided naturalistic and historical-environmental excursions, also offering engaging educational workshops suitable for both school groups and adults wishing to deepen their understanding of this extraordinary ecosystem.

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