After long and troubled vicissitudes, it was only in April 1999 that the nature reserve “La Timpa di Acireale” was finally established by the Department of Land and Environment Protection of the Region of Sicily, also thanks to a wave of interest from the local community.
The reserve was established to enable the conservation, protection and enhancement of a huge natural, geological and landscape heritage area. However, the initial motivations are limiting compared to its actual potential because, despite its high degree of anthropisation, the site is also the wooded strip at lowest altitude in the eastern slope of Etna belonging to the ancient Bosco di Aci, a wood which in the early nineteenth century extended across a wide range of that slope.
These areas have made possible the preservation of a rich forestry fauna and a large invertebrate fauna at the foothills of Etna, thus representing a shelter for a variety of vertebrate species.
The protected area, extended over 265 hectares and entrusted to management of the Regional Demesnal Forestry Department, lies entirely within the area of the municipality of Acireale (Catania), between the villages of Maria SS delle Grazie and Santa Maria Ammalati. It has been divided into two areas, with different intended uses:
- Zone A, which includes the narrow coastal strip between the Gazzena area and the inhabitated area of Santa Maria La Scala, an area of Timpa Falconiera and Timpa Belfrontizio.
- Zone B, a pre-reserve, under development control area which includes the sub-flat area of Gazzena and the area underlying Timpa Falconiera and Timpa Belfrontizio.
The Timpa area represents one of the most significant examples of the Etna coastal landscape. The terraces made of lava rock along the steep slopes, the little walkways, the inner side roads, the irrigation canals (twills), the dry-stone walls, all constitute the historical memory of this territory.
The Timpa is a natural escarpment originated from the movement of the fault of Acireale, one of the major faults of the eastern Etna area. It belongs to a larger system of faults that represent the final part of the Hyblean Maltese escarpment and has dislocated ancient volcanic material (200 million years old) bringing to light impressive and numerous lava layers. Over a long stretch, the Timpa is a coast overlooking the sea. Between Pietra Monaca and Santa Maria la Scala, at the base of the escarpment, along the small pebbly beaches you can observe various sources, such as the ferruginous one at Acqua del Ferro. Important geological features are:• Grotta delle Colombe (“Cave of Doves”), beautiful basalt columns which once formed a cave along the cliff in Santa Maria la Scala• A lava flow cave, formed during an eruption when the lava along the route of the ancient railway line turned into a cave. The Timpa is a natural geological section where you can admire the most ancient produce of Etna.
Over time the vegetation of the Timpa has been greatly affected by the presence of man. The observation of the vegetable life starts from the coastal area and reaches the highest point of the slope. Along the cliffs lying at the foot of the Timpa we can find a halophilic vegetation, i.e. apt to withstand the salinity due to the proximity of the sea; can be found the Sea Fennel and the Common Broom on the cliffs. Near the water source Miuccio, in close proximity to the mill of Santa Maria la Scala, we can observe the formation of a semi-submerged aquatic vegetation where we can find Water Celery, Watercress and Water Speedwell.Walking up the escarpment, the vegetation begins to become rocky and we can see: Carnation of the rocks, Caper, Red Wallflower and Bladder Campion. The Mediterranean maquis of the Timpa is characterised by big clumps of arborescent euphorbia, which are often are associated with shrub species, such as: Alatern, Carubazzo, Gorse, Wild Olive, Phyllirea, Lentisk and Sicilian Tea. Unfortunately, the arboreal vegetation consisting of woods only represents small patches of what once must have been an impressive forest, il Bosco di Aci. Today, especially in the northern sector, we can observe specimens of Downy Oak, Mediterranean Hackberry and South European Flowering Ash, together with the above-mentioned shrubs in the maquis. Favoured by farmland abandonment and a number of fires, the herbaceous vegetation has taken possession of these territories to form prairies where we can recognise: Common Thatching Grass, Ferula, Asphodel, Red Valerian and Clustered Carline Thistle.
Since the Timpa lies on a highly urbanised area, it is not very easy to observe wildlife, except for the birds that enliven the reserve with their melodious singing. Close to the coast it is easy to watch the common Gull, the herring Gull, the Cormorant, the Great Crested Grebe, the colourful Kingfisher and, in some moments of the year, the Grey Heron. The steep escarpment and its dense vegetation are the perfect retreat for some birds of prey: the Peregrine Falcon, the Buzzard, the Kestrel, the Barn Owl, the Owl and the Scops Owl.All year round we can observe: the Sardinian Warbler, the Stonechat, the Serin, the Great Tit, the Blue Tit, the Winter Wren and the dancing White and Grey Wagtail. In spring, the Timpa comes alive with birds that come to nest, such as the Swallow, the Hoopoe, the House Martin, the Common Sandpiper and the Subalpine Warbler.Despite being difficult to observe, among the mammals are the Weasel, the Hedgehog, the Porcupine, the Garden Dormouse, the Etruscan Shrew, the White-Toothed Shrews and the Savi’s Pine Vole. Among the reptiles: the Lizard, the Ocellated Skink, the Leopard Snake, the Green Whip Snake and the now rare terrestrial Turtle.Besides, there are a number of invertebrate species. Among the colourful butterflies, it is easy to find the Swallowtail, the Scarce Swallowtail, the Small White and, from March to June, the wonderful Orange-Tip, too. Among the coleoptera: the colorful Trichodes apiarius, Calanthus mollis, Cantharis livida sicula, Stenus leonhardi and Psephogenius peloritanus, the latter two endemisms showing evidence of ancient woodland faunas.
In summer, with a keen eye we can easily catch sight of the Praying Mantis, camouflaged among the meadow. Also present are the Mediterranean Mantis, the blue-winged Grasshopper and the peculiar Egyptian Grasshopper. At dusk it is usual to hear the monotonous sound produced by the Cicada. Various species inhabit the Timpa but we can enumerate some Sicilian endemits among the several dozen species of bees: Nomada sicula, Lithurgus chrysurus and Pseudoanthidium gregoriense.