Fire Management Within Grassland Ecosystems Forum, 13th & 14th March, 2014
This conference was organised by the City of Salisbury at Mawson Lakes and was very well attended. The title of the Forum does not do justice to the wide range of topics; we heard about historical matters, grass biology and evolution, grazing management and re-establishment of grasslands as well as the management and role of fire in grasslands.
The legal, political and social issues involved in deliberate lighting of fires for management purposes (e.g., safety and biodiversity considerations) in South Australia were discussed in two presentations. These issues are complex and made more difficult by a lack of coordination within Government – I never realised that it is the EPA who restrict burning outdoors to the time between 10.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m., even though fire practitioners, for safety reasons, would prefer to burn before and after those hours.
The Keynote speaker was Tim Low, who developed the theme that grasses are an under-appreciated family of plants in that they are ecosystem engineers. Since they regenerate better and grow faster after fire or heavy grazing, they tolerate fire and grazing in a way that eliminates many of their competitors (trees and shrubs). They also benefit from the activities of other ecosystem engineers like elephants and humans. Tim also warned of the propensity of some exotic grasses to become invasive and form monocultures that exclude native plants and cause greater fire hazards.
Joan Gibbs presented a fascinating history of the attitudes to fire in Aboriginal and settler communities around Adelaide. The settlers brought the view that fire was an enemy and quickly suppressed the Aboriginal view that it was a management tool. By the 1840s, laws were passed against burning (even stubble burning was banned for a while) and Aborigines who lit fires were prosecuted. It is only recently that attitudes have changed and management fires have become legal.
There were several presentations that covered various aspects of restoration of native grasslands. Shaun Kennedy described the very large project that SA Water is undertaking near Clarendon to re-establish grassy woodland on old pasture for catchment management. Paul Gibson Roy reviewed some of the aspects of the Grassy Ground Cover Project sites in Victoria and our own Bob Myers described his work on his property.
There were several presentations on real experiences with fire in natural grasslands. Leanne Liddle spoke with eloquence about Aboriginal practice in the outback, illustrated with some wonderful photos. Anthony Watt, from the CFA in Victoria, spoke about his experience with burning roadsides and reserves for safety reasons, but also alluded to the losses of native vegetation that occur when regular burning ceases. I found it very significant that he always burns after New Year’s day, time when it is illegal to burn in SA. Randall Johnson described research that DEWNR are doing before and after controlled burns in Grey Box grassy woodlands. This is a great start, but I feel that conclusions about the impacts of fire are premature when you have had only two or three fires in the previous 150 years. We need data on what happens after several fires in a decade. Dr John Morgan gave us the natural history of kangaroo grass and the importance of burning in maintaining swards in Victoria. The experience in the Adelaide Hills is different: our swards seem limited by a lack of summer rainfall to allow seed germination and the tussocks rarely seem to die off from a lack of burning. But, if we were allowed to burn them more often, would we get healthier tussocks and more germination?
An important issue that has developed as Governments across Australia have moved to implement controlled burning as a management tool is that of a lack of experience in the community with fire. Dr Jon Marsden-Smedley from Tasmania described the innovative projects that he has done in Tasmania and South Australia to develop guidelines for planned burns and processes for training private landholders who need to use fire in land management. This seems to be part of a serious effort by the relevant Governments to improve fire management in all landscapes, and not just grasslands.
As an alternative to fire, Graeme Hand (from SW Victoria and the CEO of the Stipa Association) gave an enthusiastic presentation on the role that controlled grazing can play in broad scale regeneration of native grass pastures (natural or planted). His recommendations to farmers who want to increase the pereniality and biodiversity of their pastures include an emphasis on the importance of measuring landscape function. This can be done by assessments of biological activities at the soil surface. (On the web, you can see David Tongway’s Ecosystem Function Analysis that underpins Graeme’s approach.)
The City of Salisbury and the organisers of this conference are to be congratulated for putting together an array of excellent speakers in a well-run conference.
Forum presentations can be accessed at www.salisbury.sa.gov.au/firemanagementforum2014
With thanks to Ellen Bennett.