Veteran trees in Sicily

Oak pollard

Simon travels a bit further afield……

When you think of mountains in Sicily one pictures Mount Etna, steaming and foaming over the entire north east of the island, but move a few miles to the west into the limestone hills of the Nebrodi and Madonie Regional Parks and you can still find remnants of ancient landscapes which have survived for thousands of years.

On a recent walking tour of central Sicily we moved up into the hills from the dry coastal belt and were soon trekking through typical Mediterranean woodlands of holm oak and sweet chestnut.  Venturing further up into the Nebrodi hills we were intrigued by the large maple trees that looked a little like Macedonian maple.  On closer inspection these turned out to be our familiar Acer campestre.  Further up the oak trees had changed and also looked more familiar.  In fact they were none other than sessile oak, and we had stumbled into a mountain refuge where north European tree species have been able to survive since the end of the last ice age.  The oaks, in fact, are distinct and are classified as Quercus petraea (subspecies austrotyrrhenica).

It was of great interest to find that all the large trees were pollards, suggesting regular management in combination with cattle, sheep and pig grazing.  In recent years it appears that grazing pressure has reduced at high altitude, resulting in quite large areas of young beech forest starting to spread across hillsides.  Young oak woods appear on better soils and other new woodlands dominated by Holly (Ilex aquifolium).  The local “Mountain Maple” was nothing more unusual than dear old sycamore, but how wonderful to find such splendid trees happily surviving so far south.

The younger woods are even aged and extremely dense with many more stems per hectare than in the UK. They are shady with a limited ground flora, often dominated by Butchers Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) I presume that the high light intensity at this latitude allows trees to thrive with smaller crowns than in northern Europe.

At the north of the park we walked to a famous holly grove at Piano Pomo, high above Castlebuono at around 1250m. This pure and even aged holly woodland covers about 1.5 hectares and all the trees have diameters well in excess of 50 cm.   The dense shade attracts wild Nebrodi pigs (wild boar crossed with domestic pig) and all of the ground is well worked over.   The trees which grow on the outside edge of the grove are truly spectacular with dense berries extending from the ground to a height of 12 – 13 metres.   We found several other pure holly woods in the mountains which were of a similar size but much younger and therefore impenetrable. These woods must germinate simultaneously at a time when grazing pressures are low and when seed is plentiful.

Above the holly grove we found a much larger area of old oak pollards growing amongst the boulders. I counted 50 trees but there are probably well over 100 just at this one site. The regional park has created trails highlighting some of the ancient trees, and they are obviously keen to see them protected for the future.  A well-used footpath climbs through the woods to the top of the mountain.  This splendid shrine with Madonna is on the route:

The highlight of our trip was a walk across the slopes of Mont Cavallo, high above the hill town of Polizzi Generosa, where one finds the last few remaining specimens of the Nebrodi Fir (Abies nebrodiensis). Scattered across the steep limestone scree are just 30 trees which make up the entire wild population. They appear to be mostly quite young and vigorous, though all have been fenced off to prevent grazing damage. This was a very stark lesson demonstrating just how vulnerable isolated tree populations can be.

If you find yourself in Sicily, the Parco delle Madonie lies just to the south of the resort of Cefalu, so is easy to get to.  You will need a car to get up to the park and driving in Sicily can be challenging, to say the least.  Global Map produce a good 1:50,000 map of park but we did not see this for sale in Sicily itself.  Inn Travel organise a 7 day hike across the Madonie, staying at hotels and hostels along the route. Don’t forget to pack your tape!