Fire frequency influences composition and structure of the shrub layer in an Australian subcoastal temperate grassy woodland


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Little is known about the relationship between fire regimes and plant diversity in Australia's temperate grassy woodlands. The effect of fire frequency on shrubs in grassy woodland remnants across Western Sydney's Cumberland Plain was examined. Shrub species richness and composition were compared in sites that had experienced a high, moderate or low frequency of fire over the previous 20 years. Nine sites were surveyed, three in each fire frequency category; most sites, including all low-fire-frequency sites, had burnt 9–36 months prior to sampling. Fire frequency had a profound effect on the composition and structure of the shrub layer. Per cent frequency and density of the prickly shrub Bursaria spinosa (Pittosporaceae) was considerably higher in low-fire-frequency sites than where fires had occurred at least once a decade. In sites where fire had been absent for decades prior to a recent fire, this species dominated the landscape, while elsewhere it occurred as clumps in a grassy matrix. Per cent frequency of other native shrubs, particularly obligate seeders, was greatest at moderate fire frequencies. Exotic shrubs were recorded most often where fire had been rare. While ordination clearly separated out the low-fire-frequency sites, complete separation between high- and moderate-fire-frequency blocks was not achieved. The increase in Bursaria in the absence of fire mirrors the encroachment of woody plants into a range of grassy ecosystems around the world. The sensitivity of obligate seeder species, many of them short-lived legumes with fire-cued seeds, to both very frequent and very infrequent fire shows the vulnerability of these species to extreme fire regimes, despite the safeguards conferred by hard-seededness. Competition from Bursaria, as well as loss of viable seed in the soil, may have contributed to the low frequency of these species after a long inter-fire interval.