, Volume 144, Issue 1, pp 127-144

Defining grassland fire events and the response of perennial plants to annual fire in temperate grasslands of south-eastern Australia

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Abstract

Many species-rich Themeda triandra grasslands in south-eastern Australia have been burnt annually in summer as a land management practice for decades. The characteristics of annual fires (maximum surface temperatures, maximum soil temperature changes at 10 mm depth, Byram fire intensity and duration of surface heating) were compared to fires that occur less frequently (2, 4 or 7-year inter-fire interval). The impacts of annual summer fires on seed survival, perennial plant dynamics and flowering were also documented at two sites over two years.

Annual grassland fires differ principally from other grassland fire types in their duration of surface temperatures above 100 °C (i.e., <1 min versus >2–3 min in grasslands burnt at 4–7-year intervals). This was correlated to fuel load, but not rate of spread or Byram fire intensity. Maximum surface temperatures were variable within annual fire events (98–458 °C ) and did not differ significantly from those observed in other grassland fires. All sites experienced temperatures above 350 °C but no site had its soil temperature increase at 10 mm depth by >10 °C during fire. Byram fire intensity was lower in annually burnt sites, but positively correlated with rate of spread moreso than fuel load.

Many perennial species (34–55%) and most perennial individuals (70–83%) avoid the annual summer fire event by being dormant at the time of burning. All perennial species regenerated rapidly by vegetative means after fire and seedlings were absent or rare for most species. As a result, turnover of species at the small-scale was low.

Annual burning permits high perennial species richness (mean 18 species/0.25 m2) and high numbers of individual perennial plants (range 189–1036 plants/0.25 m2) to co-exist at the small-scale. Seasonal plant density maxima peaked in spring, 6–8 months after fire, and the number of plants in a species' population each year following fire depended on their seasonal response more than their direct fire response. The direction and magnitude of population change from one year to the next was species and site specific and did not correlate with life form or a plant's ability for vegetative spread. All perennial species have a short secondary juvenile period (i.e., 6–11 months) but relatively few individual plants flower in any one year. Seed that has made its way into the soil is completely protected from the direct effects of fire and hence, occasional post-fire seedling recruitment may be possible for all species.

Maintaining annual burning in grasslands as a management regime is unlikely to lead to a decline in richness and plant density in the short-term. Rather, delayed burning (i.e., >3 year intervals), and the impact that this may have on interval dependent processes such as above-ground competition, are predicted to have more substantial long-term effects on the small-scale dynamic of this community.