Italy was originally clothed in forests, but these have mostly fallen victim to man’s depredations. In the Alps, where forestry is still an important activity, oak, sweet chestnut and beech are common up to about 900 meters, with spruce, fir, pine and larch at higher altitudes. Much depends on aspect, but above 2,250 meters only stunted trees (mainly larch, juniper, alder and mountain pine) survive, eventually giving way to humble alpine plants.
Extensive oak and chestnut woodlands have survived on the infertile morainic hills along the Alpine margin of the Northern Plain. The plain itself was once a forest of oak, elm, alder, poplar and willow, but is now almost entirely farmland, with poplars as a valuable “crop” along the rivers.
In Mediterranean Italy drought resistant evergreen oaks have survived in parts of the Anti Apennines (up to about 600 meters) and more extensively in Sardinia, where the cork oak is also commercially important. Plantations of maritime and Aleppo pine have been established on fiat and sandy stretches of the coast. Where woodland has been cleared and the land then abandoned, a secondary growth of laurel, broom and other woody shrubs known as the macchia frequently takes over.
It provides firewood and rough grazing, and may be brought back into cultivation from time to time. Some very stony deforested areas support nothing but garriga, a sparse heathy vegetation consisting of lavender, thyme, rosemary and other fragrant herbs. In the mountains, where the summer drought is less severe, the evergreen oak is replaced by deciduous oaks, which in turn are succeeded upwards by chestnut and beech. There are extensive beech forests in the Abruzzi, and the Sila plateau is noted for its pine and chestnut forests.
Wildlife is scarce, owing to the national passion for shooting, hunting and trapping. Surviving species include the chamois of the Alps, wolves, wild hogs and deer. A heavy toll is taken of migratory birds of all varieties, especially in Sicily. This indiscriminate killing is not for food, but in the name of sport.