Effects of increasing fire frequency on conservation values in Eucalyptus grassy woodland in the process of invasion by Allocasuarina verticillate
Kirkpatrick, JB and Jenkinson, I, Effects of increasing fire frequency on conservation values in Eucalyptus grassy woodland in the process of invasion by Allocasuarina verticillate, Fire, 5, (31) ISSN 2571-6255 (2022) [Refereed Article]
Woody thickening is a widespread phenomenon in the grassy woodlands of the world, often with deleterious effects on nature conservation values. We aimed to determine whether increasing the frequency of planned fire prevented woody thickening and improved conservation values in a Eucalyptus viminalis grassy woodland in the process of invasion by Allocasuarina verticillata (henceforth Allocasuarina) in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. We used a before–after control intervention design. Ten plots from which detailed vegetation data were collected in 2018 (before the burns), 2019 (between burns), 2020 (between burns) and 2021 (after the burns) were randomly located in each of four blocks. Two of the blocks were burned in both 2018 and 2021. One block was burned only in 2021, and another was not burned at all. Mechanical thinning of Allocasuarina took place in 2021 in six plots in one unburned block and in three twice-burned plots. The fires were low intensity and patchy, reflecting the reality of planned burns in this environment. Thus, there were unburned plots mixed with burned plots in each of the three burned blocks. We compared changes in vegetation and cover attributes between a preburn survey in 2018 and a postburn survey in 2021, between five fire history/thinning classes (unburned, no thinning; unburned, thinning; twice burned; burned in 2018 only; burned in 2021 only). Fires in both 2018 and 2021 resulted in lower litter cover and higher exotic species richness than one fire in 2021. Exotic species richness increase between 2018 and 2021 was greater after fires in 2018 and 2021 than after a fire in 2021 alone. Exotic species richness was lowest six years after fire and highest one to three years after fire. The basal area of Allocasuarina was, counter-intuitively, less reduced by two fires in four years than by one. Mechanical thinning reduced shrub layer cover, which largely consisted of small trees, but did not affect basal area. Our data suggested that grass cover increased until five years after a fire, declining back to a low level by eight years. The implications of the results for conservation management are that the mechanical removal of young Allocasuarina may be successful in preventing its thickening and that burning at a five-year interval is likely to best maintain understorey conservation values. The counter-intuitive results related to Allocasuarina basal area emphasise the importance of understanding cumulative effects of fire regimes on fuel cycles and the consequent effects on tree mortality.