1. The role of prescribed burning of vegetation to manage fire risk is controversial in a variety of situations worldwide. It is becoming more topical (i) as a result of potential global warming where the risk of wildfire might increase and (ii) because fire might affect the various ecosystem services provided in a different way. Where prescribed fire is used, ecologists need to know the impact on biodiversity (post-fire recovery) and on provisioning and regulating services such as water collection and carbon sequestration. Here, we assess the effect of prescribed burning on plant community composition and its component species at the regional scale of the Peak District, where the moorland vegetation is severely degraded.
2. Species cover (%) was assessed on five moors with respect to elapsed time since prescribed burning and vegetation height. A stratified random method was used to choose burn patches covering a range of ages since burning; quadrats were then sampled randomly within these patches over a 3-year period. Detrended correspondence analysis was used to relate species composition to significant environmental variables, and variation partitioning was used to assess their relative contribution. Response curves were produced for the major species with respect to elapsed time since burning and vegetation height.
3. The species ordination produced two gradients, (i) a continuum from a graminoid-dominated vegetation to one dominated by Erica tetralix, Vaccinium myrtillus and Rubus chamaemorus and (ii) a post-fire growth response of the dominant species, Calluna vulgaris. Species composition was more highly correlated with vegetation height than elapsed time since burning. The environmental variables explained 15·2% of the variation.
4. Calluna vulgaris was the only species to show an increasing response after burning; all others showed an increase immediately after burning, but then they either decreased or showed a unimodal/skewed response. Most other species were restricted to vegetation <40 cm height and 20–25 years after burning.
5. Synthesis and applications. We found two major results of importance to policy makers and land managers: (i) that prescribed burning maintains species diversity in the immediate post-burn phase, and (ii) as the vegetation ages and increases in height, most species disappear and the vegetation becomes dominated by C. vulgaris. From a policy perspective, prescribed burning (or some other disturbance) is needed to maintain burning and a no-burn policy will result in a low-diversity, C. vulgaris-dominated vegetation. As vegetation height is the easiest measure for land managers to use in judging when to burn, we recommend moorland vegetation be burned before it reaches 25 cm in height to maintain the pre-burn complement of plant species. If the rotation allows the vegetation to become much taller (>40 cm), then most species will be lost and they will have to colonize after subsequent fires from the seedbank or from the surrounding area.