COASTAL WET LANDS OF THE FRIULI VENEZIA REGION
For those riding near the small town of Marano lagunare, only a few minutes from the San Giorgio di Nogaro exit. For those who have more time available, it is worth taking a boat trip, which offers a splendid view of the huge lagoon, and in particular of the Regional river Stella mouth Nature Reserve which covers about 1,400 hectares. This important area has long been declared a “wetland of international importance” by the Ramsar convention, due, in particular, to the high concentration of migrant water birds that congregate there.
The main vegetation is characterised by huge reedbeds, interspersed with small lakes and inlets. At the mouth of the river, the thickets are only reeds (Phragmites australis), downstream they gradually give way to sea bulrushes and sandbanks which form muddy islands carpeted by halophylic (salt-tolerant) vegetation growing abundantly where there is a higher concentration of salt.
The small town of Marano hosts the regional Nature Reserve of Valle Canal Novo. It includes a visitors’ centre and provides visitors with information on the naturalistic aspects of the 140-hectare area, providing some tours, and even walkways on the water such as, for instance, the typical Caminada su l’acqua: observers are lead to typical hides made of reeds from which the landscape and bird-life can be viewed. To the extreme east of the Marano and Grado lagoon is the regional Nature Reserve of Valle Cavanata (330 hectares): an additional wetland recognized by the Ramsar convention of international importance, which has been blocked off from the sea and turned into a lagoon in the past.
The whole lagoon is well visible from the state road linking Monfalcone to Grado. For many years it has housed many gulls, cormorants, mute swans and other waterbirds. The halophylic vegetation predominates and includes many strangely named species such as sea-lavender (Limonium vulgare) or the pickleweed which are the most common plants in this area. The year 1997 is a memorable year since two couples of spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), a very rare species, nested for the first time next to a colony of re-introduced Graylag goose.
Slightly further eastwards, the Regional Nature Reserve on the mouth of the Isonzo river can be reached from the state road linking Grado to Monfalcone. The Isonzo river sources in the Julian Alps in Slovenia, and is about 140 kilometres long.
This is the most northerly area of the Mediterranean Sea, and the high rocky coasts, typical of the eastern Adriatic sea, end at Duino. They are replaced by low coasts and lagoons, which include Venice, and stretch down to the delta of the Po river, to the south-west, and form one of the most complex and important wetlands in the world. The Nature Reserve is located in an area with unique biological, geographic and historical characteristics. The protected area covers 2,350 hectares and has its core in the so-called “Isola della Cona”, which belongs to the municipality of Staranzano. The Reserve also includes some smaller territories located in other municipalities such as Grado, with its Caneo wetland and with a huge part of the estuary ridge; San Canzian d’Isonzo, with the so-called “Bosc Grand” wetland along the right side of the river, which is effectively less than one hectare wide; and finally, Fiumicello with its river beds of gravel and riverine woodland.
Legends and recent history
The legend narrated by the geographer Strabo says that many years before Christ, the Thracian, Diomede, had reared herds of white horses in honour of the goddess Diana (Arthemis) right in this area. For this reason the huge oak woodland carpeting the eastern bank of the Isonzo river was named Silva Diomedaea by the Romans. The once splendid woodland is now confined to the Isonzo river and in the Alberoni area. At that time the woodland served as a backdrop to the estuary of the mysterious Timavo river, the “shortest river in Italy” and the so-called “mother of sea”.
This river, which even today is still mysterious and mainly unexplored, runs underground for 40 kilometres and re-emerges just a rifle’s shot away from the Adriatic Sea, near the Duino castle, at the foot of the Karst area.
Slightly to the west of Isonzo river’s current position, the frightening, dark woodland Silva lupanica extended for kilometres as a natural barrier. It carpeted the whole of the low plains and acted as a border just behind Aquileia: the important city founded by the Romans in 171 BC.
Thanks to the road network “unwisely” built by the Romans, it was easier for Attila and his Huns to invade Italy: The barbarians conquered Aquileia in 452 AC after a long siege. As reported in Paolo Diacono’s Historia langobardorum, such invasion caused many pairs of storks to leave the area. A dramatic event which takes us back to the origin of Venice, when the Aquileia inhabitants took refuge first in Grado and later further to the West in the lagoon where they would set up a new, more protected city surrounded by insidious marshes and deep canals: Venice.
The areas around the Friuli-Venezia Giulia lagoon and more specifically, along the Isonzo river are acknowledged as steeped in European history. However, they have undergone a heavy development and significant environmental changes in more recent times. In fact, the area along the Isonzo river was progressively deforested and drained to be replaced by cultivated land as well as tourist resorts and new industrial sites. Grado itself, alas, is no longer an island due to tourist development. Hence, the strong necessity to preserve and, where possible, reintroduce at least some of the fauna and flora which have characterized this area for many centuries. For instance the storks, or the rare, white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaetus albicilla) after which the first Roman colony was probably named. A complex plan of refurbishment and, where possible, of restoration of degraded or reduced habitats is needed in order to reduce the continuous and progressive wetland degradation, in particular along the coasts.
A restoration plan
The estuary of the Isonzo river is still today one of the most important natural areas for its shallow waters, mudflats, wetlands as well as woodland and occasional springs. The so-called “Isola della Cona” is today linked to the mainland by a dam allowing easy access, but which also prevents freshwater from entering the Quarantia canal. All the springs in this area have been diverted and channelled into the new artificial Brancolo canal, causing the freshwater habitats to loose their original characteristics.
For this reason, based on a restoration project dating back to 1983, the wetland has been progressively re-designed and reintroduced on a fifty-hectare area. This project, mainly financed by the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region and by the European Union, includes the construction of a visitors’ centre to encourage eco-tourism and bird watching activities. Besides the shallow water areas, where frogs and amphibions live abundantly, also some islands, woodland, pools, canals, reedbeds and flooded meadows have been restored or newly created.
Fauna and Flora
Thanks to the recovery of degradated habitats, the many diversities in flora and fauna have widely increased. The most predominant are the bird-species which amount to over 300 species, of which at least 80 have also bred.
The most significant fauna species include, for instance, the black-winged stilt, which was nearly extinct in the past, the great bittern, the purple heron and the marsh-harrier which live in the dense reedbeds.
Thanks to the decrease of disturbance and habitat improvement thousands of ducks (up to 30,000 specimens) rest there during winter. This solution has had results beyond all expectations, considering the fact that this project had been criticised for being inadequate and restricted to too small an area for so many species. In other seasons there are great white and little egrets as well as the large, elegant spoonbill, which was considered to be nearly extinct as it requires highly specialized environmental conditions.
We should not forget the many water species living on the mudflats which emerge from water during low-tide, as for example the curlew, an elegant, mimical species with a long, curved beak, which has been adopted as the symbol of the Reserve; the noisy graylag geese, reintroduced with success, as well as thousands of white fronted goose from Siberia migrating to and from Africa. To re-establish such a complex eco-system, two groups of horses have been reintroduced to the area: one left free to graze in the pasture, allowing for a more uniform growth of the wetland vegetation; the other of trained ones used for the guided tours across the reserve. Both groups are Carmargue, an ancient, rustic breed which is used to the wetland habitat. Besides these horses, whose white mane recalls that of Diomede’s legendary horse, some cattle are periodically introduced into this area so as to re-establish the original balance between fauna and flora and the ancient migrations of the big grazing mammals. Even some amphibians such as the agile frog and the Italian tree frog have benefited from this improved habitat.
Sustainable tourism, environmental education, research
The Cona is well-known for its hides and screened footpaths, specially designed as observation points which do not disturb the wild fauna. The Marinetta observatory is undoubtedly the most interesting building after the visitors’ centre, which was inaugurated in 2002, and the “Museum of the Ducks”. It is entirely thathched with reeds, and is three storeys high. It overlooks the re-established wetland. It allows the noisy groups of visitors to enjoy an exceptional view of under water life and the Gulf of Trieste. The view reaches as far as Istria, the Karst and the Julian Alps; birds of prey are frequently seen swooping to capture one of the thousands birds in the area or plunging spectacularly into water.
The philosophy behind the projects carried out along the coast or in the lagoon aim at concentrating visitors in specifically designed areas so as to keep the more delicate and fragile territories as secluded as possible. This extremely effective solution has preserved the protected areas, and in some cases has also extended the territory as well as creating many new jobs related to sustainable tourism. In order to enhance the results reached so far, a biological station has been created in the Reserve with the aim of providing the guidelines for the managment and monitoring of the whole coastal and lagoon areas of the Region.