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Paradise of flora and fauna Because of its great biodiversity the area has been declared a “Wetland of International Importance” and a State nature reserve. The oasis, near Vernole, a few kilometers from Lecce, is managed by the Italian WWF, which organises eco-sustainable visits and events by Fabio Ippolito
Egrets in flight in Le Cesine. Photo Archivio Fotogramma
In the Salento of today, often sadly compromised by the transformations wrought by man, few places act as guardians over the original charm of the landscape as well as the “Cesine” (a name probably derived from “segine”, metathesis from the Latin seges, or uncultivated zone). We have to imagine that up to the end of the 19th century, between Brindisi and Otranto, a dense weave of shrub and marshes made most of the coastline inaccessible and inhospitable. The few lonely and isolated defence-posts, the coastal watch-towers, that, in the case of the farmhouse-tower Masseria Cesine, because of the presence of the marshes had to spread inland, protected themselves inside the nucleus of the fortified structures.
The widespread dimensions and unhealthy nature of the marshes, the influence of the sea winds that made growing anything on the lands situated along the coast difficult, provoked on one hand a decisive policy of reclamation, which led to the drainage of a large area of the Cesine marshes, and on the other, from 1950 onwards, the challenging task of re-forestation that has characterised the landscape since then. These anthropic works have contributed to the present-day environmental mosaic that is the Cesine, characterised by heterogeneity and thus great biodiversity. For this reason the wetland was first recognised as being of “international importance”, according to the Treaty of Ramsar, and then was declared a State Nature Reserve and included in the European network “Natura 2000”.
The canals which define the limits of the area, and which furrow through it in some points, create a whole with the system of the ponds behind the dunes, but while in them, like in the flooded fields and in the inland wells the presence of fresh water makes it possible, although only in function of the seasonal water supply, for there to be a multitude of living micro-organisms determining complex food chains, in the coastal marshes the life cycles are heavily influenced by the complex equilibrium between the action of the tides – and the consequent salinity – and the supply of fresh water from inland, generating ecosystems in constant and dynamic transformation, or, as some would have it, in an uncertain equipoise between land and sea.
The vegetation has to fit in with these differences. So, while in the internal marshes the common reed, the cattail and the yellow iris prevail, and, in the canal water, the floating plants and submerged ones like pondweed and star duckweed, in the coastal ponds, apart from the common reed, which manages to adapt itself to this habitat too, halophile species like bulrushes and rushes, dominate; underwater the only phanerophyte that succeeds in tolerating the high level of salinity is the wigeongrass. On the edge of the marshes you can find some rarities like the saltmarsh morning glory and the silk vine. To the west the ponds are edged in the green of the Mediterranean maquis and the pine forests, in which pathways and observation huts have been set up.
This diversity of habitats finds a corresponding variety of what is the most important naturalistic resource of the Cesine, that is, the avifauna. Starting from the rural, wooded and shrub landscapes of the hinterland, inhabited by dozens of species of passerines like hoopoes, golden orioles, wagtails, shrikes, tits, blackbirds, firecrests, nightingales, warblers and finches, you reach the reed beds that act as resting places for swallows, starlings, and as a hiding-place for the red heron, the bittern, the reed warbler, the river nightingales and the fantail warblers. Along the canals, or on the banks of the ponds, you might glimpse the flight of the kingfisher, but it is on the edges of or in the middle of the open waters of the quagmires that you can see the most surprising sights; white or grey herons in sweet flight, ducks and swans, geese of all types, some of them very rare, like the red-crested pocharel, little grebes and coots, flamingos and cormorants. Here you can spy the western marsh-harrier, or the mute swan, while glossy ibis, spoonbills, common stilts and black-tailed godwits fly back and forth between the marshes and the shallow waters of the inland flooded meadows.
These days the protected area is managed by the Italian WWF, who make it usable in the most respectful of ways, and organise a series of events that bring people closer to the culture of nature conservation. It is possible to walk around the Cesine with the Masseria as the starting-point and visitors’ centre, or take advantage of one of the means offered by the program of sustainable mobility, which recently has also introduced the use of donkeys.
WHERE: Riserva Naturale