Fire frequency regulates tussock grass composition, structure and resilience in endangered temperate woodlands

Authors

  • SUZANNE M. PROBER,

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, PO Box 789, Albury, NSW 2640, and
      *Present address: CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Private Bag 5, PO Wembley, WA 6913, Australia (Email: suzanne.prober@csiro.au)
    Search for more papers by this author
  • KEVIN R. THIELE,

    1. Centre for Biological Information Technology, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author
  • IAN D. LUNT

    1. Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, PO Box 789, Albury, NSW 2640, and
    Search for more papers by this author

*Present address: CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Private Bag 5, PO Wembley, WA 6913, Australia (Email: suzanne.prober@csiro.au)

Abstract

Abstract  The importance of disturbance for regulating the structure and diversity of grassy ecosystems is widely recognized, but disturbance-mediated interactions between grassland composition and grassland resilience, and consequent implications for conservation management, are less well documented. We established replicated burning, mowing and (non-livestock) grazing regimes in two contrasting grassy woodland remnants in south-eastern Australia, and monitored the dynamics and resilience of the matrix-forming tussock grasses, Poa sieberiana (Poa) and Themeda australis (Themeda), over 12 years. Introduction of frequent burning to a Poa-dominated understorey in a rarely burnt woodland enhanced dominance by Themeda, and conversely, reduced fire frequency in a frequently burnt Themeda grassland substantially increased Poa abundance. Burning was potentially detrimental in the Poa-dominated woodland, but sward resilience (recovery after the 2002 burn) increased as Themeda increased with repeated burning. By contrast, the Themeda grassland was resilient to 4- and 8-yearly burning, but biennial burning led to poor resilience and high tussock mortality under drought conditions. Contrary to other mesic grasslands, cessation of burning had not caused sward collapse by 14 years post-fire despite high litter accumulation, potentially due to compensatory growth of Poa, lower site productivity and drought. Biennial mowing without slash removal was similar to 4-yearly burning in effects, while exclusion from kangaroo and rabbit grazing significantly increased sward biomass and contributed to increased Poa cover and inflorescence production. We conclude that functional complementarity associated with mixed dominants enhances resilience to variable disturbance regimes, and that below certain thresholds of abundance of each dominant, this resilience declines. Conservation management of Themeda–Poa ecosystems should thus aim to maintain an effective balance of these dominants.

Ancillary