International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Effects of fire frequency and mowing on a temperate, derived grassland soil in south-eastern Australia

Suzanne M. Prober A D , Ian D. Lunt B and Kevin R. Thiele C
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Private Bag 5, PO Wembley, WA 6913, Australia.

B Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, PO Box 789, Albury, NSW 2640, Australia.

C Department of Environment and Conservation, LMB 104, Bentley Delivery Centre, WA 6983, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: suzanne.prober@csiro.au

International Journal of Wildland Fire 17(5) 586-594 https://doi.org/10.1071/WF07077
Submitted: 31 May 2007  Accepted: 18 December 2007   Published: 3 October 2008

Abstract

Frequent disturbances such as fire are widely considered important drivers of plant composition and diversity in productive grassy ecosystems. Effects of fire frequency on grassland soils, however, are less well understood. We established replicated disturbance regimes in a high-quality, representative Themeda australisPoa sieberiana-derived grassland in south-eastern Australia that had historically been burnt every 4–8 years. Effects on soil chemical, physical and biological properties were measured after 10 years of application of 2-, 4-, and 8-yearly burning, 2-yearly mowing and an undisturbed treatment. Contrary to other grassy ecosystems, there were no detectable effects of disturbance regime on total soil nitrogen and carbon, or a range of other soil chemical properties in the top 10 cm. However, a cumulative effect of burning on the grassland soil was evident from a suite of changes to soil surface properties, available nutrients and biological activity. In particular, on biennially burnt plots, reduced litter and plant protective cover were associated with increased soil surface compaction, decreased infiltration and decreased soil biological activity, which in turn were related to poor sward recovery after fire and drought. These relationships indicate potential for positive feedbacks whereby repeated removal of soil protective cover and changes to soil surface chemistry through very frequent burning ultimately lead to further reduction in soil protective cover through reduced productivity. However, this is only likely in extreme cases: data from unburnt plots indicated that soils that had historically been burnt every 4–8 years had not passed a threshold beyond which such soil changes were irreversible or damaging. Contrary to other predictions, cessation of burning for 13 years did not lead to detectable soil nutrient release through senescence of dominant grasses. Biennial mowing with slash retention was an effective alternative disturbance for maintaining sward vigour while avoiding soil surface damage.

Additional keywords: burning, soil compaction, soil fertility, soil nitrogen, woodland.


Acknowledgements

The present study was established during a project funded by the Australian Research Council, and has been supported by the New South Wales Government through its Environmental Trust, the Grassy Box Woodlands Conservation Management Network (funded through the National Heritage Trust), and a Competitive Grant from Charles Sturt University. The Monteagle Bush Fire Brigade conducted regular burns, and particular thanks go to Keith and Gail Butt (Fairfields), Hugh Jackson (Young Shire Council), Sally Kenny and Kat O’Brien for field assistance, Don Cram for rainfall data and David Eldridge (University of New South Wales) for undertaking active carbon measurements, methodological advice and comments on the manuscript.


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