Friday, 24 October 2014

Nature of Corsica 1: Backgound to the island

In September I went on a trip with Naturetrek to spend a week in search of the birds and other wildlife of Corsica. For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Europe, Corsica is a mountainous island west of Italy and in sight of the coast of France, with Sardinia to the south and the Balearic islands to the west. Geologically, the two islands started as a microplate which split from the coast of Spain around 20 million years ago and then rotated counterclockwise, eventually losing contact with the mainland around 5 million years ago, aside from brief connections during glacial periods when sea level dropped.

Prehistoric stele
As fragments of the continent, they carried with them various animals not found on oceanic islands, notably a variety of amphibians, which have since evolved into unique endemic species. Being so close to the continent, people arrived early, at least since the Mesolithic and almost certainly much earlier, and all the large mammals today are the same species as found on the mainland, although there is a subspecies of red deer that is only found on the two islands. The most important large mammal is wild boar, which abound on the island and are a very important item in the local diet (Corsican food, although excellent, is not exactly tailored for vegetarians).
Corsican Fire Salamander
The habitat around the coast is maquis, with a variety of often aromatic shrubs and small trees. At higher elevations the vegetation changes to evergreen oak and most importantly sweet chestnut. As Corsica does not have a great amount of level land for farms, Corsicans instead used chestnuts as the source of dietary carbohydrate, grinding them to flour to use in bread, eating them whole, or even making them into beer (which is actually very good). Above the chestnut forests are Corsican Pine and high altitude beech forest, with alpine plants above the tree line at the highest points in the island.

Red Kite
Politically, Corsica is part of France, and has been for nearly 300 years. Despite this, Corsicans are fiercely independent, and the local language is distinctly different from mainland French. Local road signs are in both Corsican and French, although in practise the French part is often shot out by shotgun wielding hunters (see wild boar, above).  In world history, Corsica is mostly famous as the birthplace of Napoleon, but the individual most honoured on the island is Pasquale Paoli, who set up a republic in 1755 and founded Corsicas’ first university. Unfortunately for Pasquale, the Genoese, who had previously claimed the island, did a secret deal with France, and after a great deal of conflict he ended up in exile in London. In practise, the difficulty of communication inland in the steep and trackless valleys meant that any outside power mostly controlled only the coasts, and only in recent years with improved roads has it been at all easy to get around the whole island. Today Corsica has an important tourist industry, and is especially popular with hikers and mountaineers.

Pasquale Paoli - not Scottish flag!

Great Banded Grayling
Corsica is famed for its flowers, and next post I will look at some of the autumn flowering plants we encountered during the week

(Photos are all mine)

No comments:

Post a Comment