, Volume 201, Issue 2, pp 723-731

Effects of fire on the vegetation of a lowland heathland in North-western Italy

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Abstract

This study focuses on the effect of fire on lowland heathlands at the extreme southern edge of their European distribution (Vauda Nature Reserve, NW Italy). Forty-nine plots (50 m radius) were surveyed between 1999 and 2006. Each year, fire occurrences were recorded and per cent cover of four vegetation types (grassland, heath, low shrubland, and tall shrubland) was estimated in each plot. Vascular plant species richness was also recorded in 255, 1 m2 quadrats. After a fire, grassland vegetation expanded, but then declined rapidly as heath and shrubland recovered: 7 years after a fire, tall shrubland encroached on to more than 40% of the plots, and grassland declined from 50% to 20% cover. Between 1999 and 2006, Betula pendula shrubland greatly expanded, while grassland decreased over most of the Reserve, even where fire frequency was high. Tall shrubland had low plant diversity and was dominated by widespread species of lower conservation value. By contrast, early successional vegetation (grassland and low shrubland) had higher richness and more narrowly distributed species, indication that the development of tall shrubland causes significant species loss in the heathland. Italian lowland heathlands are characterized by high rates of shrubland encroachment that threatens both habitat and species diversity. Burning frequencies of once in 3–6 years seem appropriate in this habitat, but burning alone might not suffice without actions to increase herbivore grazing.