Chestnut forest

Expansion, management, and a critical situation

In all of its differentiated ecosystems (Lauretum, Castanetum, Fagetum, etc) the Italian forest heritage is mainly represented by the coppice wood which covers 44% of the entire national forestry area (3,858,300 hectares over a total surface of 8,675,100 hectares, data obtained by the “Inventario Forestale Nazionale Italiano”, Italian Forestry Department 2005). The main characteristic of this category is that it renews itself from the stump which is a reproductive feature that is maintained over time in different ways and depending on the different species. This characteristic has been particularly noticeable with the chestnut (Castanea sativa, Miller), whose agamic reproductive capacity is constantly renewed, proving to be better than other species such as oak.

The chestnut tree is widespread in countries of the Mediterranean basin where it grows at an altitude of 400 and 700 meters above sea level. Chestnut trees define hillside landscapes and medium-height mountains in entire regions, characterizing the phytoclimatic area of the Castanetum (chestnut forest).

Considering the extent of the chestnut woods, as well as its high vitality and longevity features, the chestnut forests in Italy represent one of the most important forestry aspects in the country covering almost one-quarter of the total forestry surface. For instance, in Piedmont, the chestnut woods cover 205,000 hectares, out of a total forest area of 873,000 hectares. Although other types can be found, the most common species are “whip coppice” and the “compound coppice” (Data extracted by: “Carta Forestale Regione Piemonte”, December 2007).

The chestnut tree, especially in the most fertile environments, preserves forever its own agamic reproductive capacity. The risk of compromising the forestry ecosystem is limited due to regulated extensive coppicing.

The chestnut cultivation has two main purposes: fruit and wood. Any forestry operation maintains scheduled pruning for renewal and the improvement of the chestnut forests. Multiple management possibilities are available which are interesting from the production as well as the landscape and biodiversity point of view.

Experts in this sector agree that correct agronomic management is a minimum condition in order to preserve chestnut forests from deterioration and parasites attacks. These problems were often not combated in many Alpine and Apennine valleys and thus were consequentially abandoned after the Second World War.

Apart from the damage caused by “chestnut cancer” which is a disease that together with the “ink disease” has threatened for years the survival of numerous plantations. The best chestnut wood management seems now to be the basic control of the damage caused by a new enemy called the chestnut gall wasp “Dryocosmus kuriphilus”. This enemy appeared a few years ago. The wasp is a parasite from Asia that having no natural enemies in the environment is rapidly spreading in the chestnut plantations causing major damage, especially to the production of fruit. Because of this epidemic, tannin production appears today as one of the most important incentives to take preventative measures.

Proper management of the ecosystems in terms of cultivation and plant protection is essential for a better conservation of forests and to provide support to businesses that, if properly developed, can bring benefits in terms of new employment.

In these terms, we have to underline that when coppices are left to themselves they produce only one third when compared to one that is properly managed. However, in order to start recovering unproductive areas and obtain profitable financial benefits, it is often necessary to implement specific support policies. Without them, operators and their families will not find the economic resources necessary to aid the recovery of the forests. An interesting example of this would be Austria, where there are twice as many forestry operators than in Italy and the percentage of forests providing financial benefits is dramatically higher.