Comparison of regeneration following burning, clearing or mineral sand mining at Tomago, NSW: I. Structure and growth of the vegetation



Abstract We have begun a long-term ecological research project to address questions about the impact of multiple disturbances on the species richness of communities and whether multiple disturbances are additive or interactive. A protected water catchment area was chosen, which is subjected to fires, sand mining and clearing, and for which detailed records are available. The study area, at Tomago (32°52′S, 151°45′E), has forest, woodland, shrubland and swamp on a sand substrate, with the vegetated dunes forming part of a coastal embayment. Forty-four sites were located in forested areas that had undergone disturbance by either fire, sand mining or clearing. Sites of each disturbance type were grouped into four age classes: less than 1 year since disturbance, nominally 1991; 5 years, nominally 1986; 11 years, nominally 1980; and 17 years, nominally 1974. A set of burned sites, with the time of the last fire matched to the times of the other disturbances, was used as the control response. In this paper we describe the study area and sites, then examine the effects of each single disturbance on vegetation structure. Canopy cover increased with time and type of disturbance, with 17 year old cleared or mined sites similar to the cover of 11 year old burned sites. In the first two years after disturbance, burned sites had significantly more understorey vegetation than cleared or mined sites, but by 5 years all three were similar. The data presented here show that regeneration of mined sites at Tomago is substantially slower than regeneration following disturbance by fire, with the regeneration of cleared sites intermediate but closer to mining than fire. After 17 years regeneration, cleared and sand mined sites had not returned to the vegetation structure of the pre-disturbance state. Understorey height and the amount of vegetation on cleared or mined sites have not achieved the levels in the original forest, although canopy cover did seem to have reached pre-disturbance levels. Current rehabilitation techniques are more sophisticated than those used 17 years ago and continued monitoring of sites currently being rehabilitated may show a faster return to pre-disturbance states. Having established the hierarchy and nature of the response to each single disturbance here, we are now in a position to investigate the impact of multiple disturbances.