Berignone Nature Reserve
The reserve extends between the municipalities of Volterra and Pomarance, over an area of more than two thousand hectares, now recognised at European level as a Special Area of Conservation.
The hills, entirely wooded, culminate in Mount Soldano, cut by streams of very clear water, in addition to the streams Fosci and Sellate. The river Cecina runs through the reserve for a stretch and leaves an indelible memory of its clarity at Masso delle Fanciulle and Masso degli Specchi, with beautiful natural blue-green pools that invite you to immerse yourself in the summer heat.
The woods and scrublands of turkey oaks, holm-oaks and strawberry trees rest on rocks that settled millions of years ago in a large lake that has now disappeared and are furrowed by the wild Botro al Rio gorge with its spectacular steep walls near Grotta Rossa, an area that can be explored thanks to a large hiking trail.
The ancient forests of deciduous and evergreen trees are home to birds of prey, woodpeckers and many other birds. The nearby Bosco di Tatti hosts oak trees, forming one of the most important populations in Italy. The wolf also lives in the Reserve with a breeding pack, as well as the wild cat, the polecat, the badger and droves of ungulates that can only be seen with a little luck in the open areas early in the morning or in the evening at dusk.
As well as being of considerable naturalistic interest, the area reveals clear traces of the important presence of man: history has been made in these now remote places, as demonstrated by the remains of the beautiful medieval fortresses: the Castello dei Vescovi and the Castello di Luppiano, the latter just outside the Reserve. The former, in particular, was, as its name suggests, the residence of prelates of the local diocese and, for a time, also a mint, i.e., the place where the coin known as Grosso volterrano was minted.
The numerous ancient paths, suitable for all needs, make it possible to safely explore the Reserve, immersing oneself in a forest landscape that is always different in every season of the year and learning more about life in the forest and the other ecosystems preserved here.
Woods are the dominant element of the entire Reserve, covering the whole system of high hills culminating in Monte Soldano (555 m). There are few but significant rocky stations in the Botro al Rio valley and along the Cecina river, with shrubby vegetation and habitats that are very interesting for their flora and fauna, as well as for their extraordinary landscape.
In a short space of time, the woods change in species and height, from scrubland and holm oak woods with Mediterranean evergreen plants on the warmer and less fertile slopes, to deciduous woods on the cooler and more humid slopes typical of the areas further inland and away from the sea, with a climate that fades into that typical of the mid-mountains.
After years of intense exploitation of the forest, which lasted until the early 1960s, this ecosystem has regained considerable elements of naturalness and maturity. This is particularly true of the high-trunk holm oak and turkey oak woods, which on the sunnier southern slopes, or those more intensively exploited through repeated cutting, give way to scrub or “forteto”, where evergreen shrubs such as phillyrea, lentisk, strawberry tree, heather and buckthorn dominate. On the other hand, on the north-facing slopes with more fertile soils and in the cool valleys, the evergreen vegetation gives way to deciduous woods with turkey oaks, wild guilder, field maples, apple trees and interesting oak groves dominated by oak trees.
Among these, the well-known “Bosco di rovere di Tatti” (Tatti Oak Wood), adjacent to the Reserve, represents one of the most valuable vegetation aspects of the Volterra area and certainly one of the most important oak-dominated woods in Italy. Alongside the oak and turkey oak, which can grow to heights of over 25 metres, we find species that are particularly demanding in terms of climate coolness and soil fertility, such as hornbeam, aspen, elm, wild maple and beautiful examples of holly. Worthy of note in the Pilelle stream is the presence of two beech trees, the remains of vegetation dating back several thousand years, when the climate at these latitudes was much colder. A very rich mosaic that offers us extraordinary contrasts of colours in spring and autumn.
Berignone looks like a sort of large woodland island surrounded by cultivated countryside, an ideal place for a high concentration of dens and nests of prey and predators that often feed outside the woodland. A case in point is the short-toed eagle, also known as the snake eagle, which flies over fields and rivers in search of reptiles, hiding its nest in the forest.
Many other birds of prey that frequent the reserve behave in a similar way, such as the peregrine, honey buzzard, black kite, sparrowhawk, buzzard and, among the mammals, the wolf, which has a breeding pack in the wildest areas of the reserve and is currently the subject of specific research.
Along the paths of the Reserve there are frequent signs of the presence of ungulates: fallow deer, mouflon, wild boar and roe deer are evident and conspicuous everywhere and are an important food source for the wolf.
The presence of a very rich environmental mosaic and low anthropic disturbance has also allowed the conservation of rare and elusive species. Among these, the presence of a solitary and very difficult to observe carnivore has recently been ascertained: the wild cat, which seems to use the shrubby and cultivated areas still present in the Reserve. Other mammals such as foxes, badgers, martens, skunks, weasels and porcupines are fairly common here. Among the birds, especially in winter, large flocks of wood pigeons can be observed, while in spring the songs of numerous species can be heard.
Among the many nesting birds, robins, blackcaps, blackbirds and firecrests are common, and, in the rare open spaces, wood-larks and cirl buntings can also be seen, while Subalpine warblers and Sardinian warblers can be seen in the scrublands. Walking along the many waterways, in the authorised stretches, we can encounter the particular fauna of the river habitats, water birds such as the moorhen, grey heron and kingfisher, while among the amphibians there is a large number of emerald toads and among the reptiles the marsh tortoise. However, the river environments also include steppe and dry habitats, where rare and threatened birds such as the stone curlew, short-toed lark and nightjar nest. Finally, the river is perhaps the preferred hunting and presence habitat for diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey, such as barn owls, scops owls and long-eared owls.
Many of these animal species are now rare and threatened, so please do not disturb them and stay on the marked paths, keep noise to a minimum, keep your dogs on a leash, do not leave any kind of waste, including food waste, and take the utmost care especially during the spring breeding season.
The Berignone forest is spread over a complex system of high hills with the highest peaks in the Volterra area such as Monte Soldano (555 m) and Poggio Metato (547).
The Reserve reveals the unexpected history of a large lake millions of years ago.
Sedimentary rocks of both lake and marine environments, such as conglomerates, sandstones, marls and clays, deposited about 7-9 million years ago, characterise the Reserve. These important traces of the ancient lake and its tributaries, together with the erosive action of the watercourses, strongly characterize the morphology and the landscape today.
Walking through the impressive gorge of the Botro al Rio, a tributary of the Torrente Sellate, it is possible to observe closely the thickness of the lake conglomerates and the erosive action of the waters of the torrent. This powerful action has revealed steep reddish walls, now dominated by the bulk of the Castello dei Vescovi, whose colouring is probably linked to the periodic exposure of the conglomerates in a particularly dry climatic period.
The frequent presence of banks of lignite, a fossil coal formed at the base of the conglomerates, allowed the development, in the first half of the 20th century, of an important mining activity of which there are few traces at Poggio Metato, in the Macchia di Tatti, at the northern limits of the Reserve.
There are modest outcrops of ophiolitic rocks , in the serpentinite variety; they represent ancient fragments of deep magma from a Jurassic ocean floor dating from 180 million years ago. These rocks, mainly located in the southern part of Berignone, between Masso delle Fanciulle and Bocca del Pavone, contribute to enriching the geological landscape and the ecological diversity of the Reserve, hosting, among other things, splendid blooms in springtime.
The Cecina river is the main watercourse; its name has Etruscan origins and is identical to that of an ancient Etruscan family from Volterra, the Ceicna, in Latin Caecina. A stretch of the middle course is included in the southernmost part of the Reserve and represents one of the most interesting naturalistic and landscape areas of Berignone and of the whole Val di Cecina.
The excellent state of preservation of the riparian vegetation, characterised by black poplar, black alder, elm, various shrubby willows and white willow, and the high quality of the river water, make up a unique environment of extraordinary beauty, enriched by the presence, between the Masso delle Fanciulle and the Bocca di Pavone, of characteristic outcrops of ophiolite rock that paint a picture with rocky features.
The gravel banks and terraces of the Cecina River are the ideal habitat for the nesting of the rare stone curlew, one of the most important bird species in the territory of the Reserves.
The best-known place is undoubtedly the Masso delle Fanciulle (Boulder of the Maidens), located just upstream from the vast agricultural terrace of Molino di Berignone, a stretch of the river set among large outcrops of serpentine boulders, resulting in a succession of small waterfalls and pools of blue-green water in a truly evocative setting.
The Pavone stream laps the Reserve on its southern border, flowing into the Cecina and ending its picturesque descent at Bocca di Pavone. The Pavone Valley, outside the Reserve, dominated by the massive Rocca Sillana, is absolutely one of the wildest and most uncontaminated environments in Tuscany. The other two most important watercourses, though with a modest flow, are the Fosci stream on the western border and the Sellate stream in the southern part of the Reserve, which, after merging together, flow into the Cecina River. In some stretches of the streams, the reduced speed of the current allows the development of typical wetland vegetation such as reed beds, rushes, sedges and reeds populated by amphibians and birds linked to wetlands such as herons, kingfishers and moorhens.
These environments are also home to a rare aquatic reptile, the marsh tortoise. To fully enjoy the Reserve’s waterways, a visit in spring or early summer is recommended as there is still sufficient water; however, remember that this is also a particularly delicate period for the reproduction of birds and amphibians.
IMPORTANT: The watercourses can only be reached from the marked paths. For reasons of habitat conservation and safety, it is forbidden to go up any of the watercourses except for the stretch between Masso delle Fanciulle and Masso degli Specchi. Ascents and guided excursions can be authorised by the Regional Office that manages the Reserves.
The luxuriant forests of Berignone and Tatti today conceal quiet places where you can walk undisturbed for hours, but they also tell of a past of frenetic human presence linked to silvicultural activities, which involved periodic cutting of the forest to produce charcoal and wood (coppice), followed in some cases by grazing of livestock in the wild. From the late Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, these woods were intensively used to provide the boilers of the Volterra Salt Pans with firewood. The many areas of former charcoal pits scattered throughout the Reserve, and the educational reconstruction along the La Venella trail, are reminders of this activity, which ended in the early 1960s. Today, the few plots of farmland wrested from nature, the old, twisted olive trees, the reforestation with pine trees and the numerous scattered farms (Il Pino, Poggio Casinieri, Capannone, Caprareccia, etc.), bear witness to the age-old presence of industrious sharecropper families. There is also the fascinating story of a Grand Ducal distillery on the Caprareccia farm that, in the mid-19th century, produced gin from juniper berries and strawberry tree liqueur, known for their quality throughout Europe.
Less widespread than in Monterufoli, mining activities were essentially linked to the extraction of lignite in the first half of the 20th century, traces of which remain in a loading yard in the road that today crosses the Tatti forest.
However, the most important evidence of the centuries-old human presence is undoubtedly the remains of the “Torraccia”, the castle of the Bishops of Berignone, dating back to the 10th century. Its remains, situated on a high spur (231 m) overlooking the confluence of the Botro al Rio and the Torrente Sellate, still evoke the memory of the prolonged and violent medieval disputes between the Bishops and the Municipality of Volterra. A stronghold of the bishops of Volterra, it played an important role in controlling a strategic route for the transport of metals, silver and copper, from the upper Cecina valley to Volterra. After the year 1000, justice was administered from here and the currency of Volterra, the “Grosso”, was minted here. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the castle most important nucleus was the keep, seat of the bishop’s residence. The castle, protected by two walls, also contained a church dedicated to St Michael and a hospital, possibly dedicated to St Anthony and known as the “hospital of the poor”. The partisans of the Third Garibaldi Brigade, formed in the Val di Cecina in November 1943, also chose this solitary castle as their headquarters.