Ecological effects of fire in the montane grasslands of Natal.
Although controlled burning has been used to manage Highland Sourveld grasslands, little was known of its effects on the vegetation. This study examined the effects of past fire treatments on veld condition,species composition, dry matter production, quality and canopy recovery growth rates of these grasslands. Also, six techniques of estimating the species composition of grasslands were compared in order to decide on a standard technique for monitoring these grasslands. From this work it was concluded that the wheel point method is the most satisfactory. Veld condition scores were significantly lower in grassland protected from fire than where veld had been burnt or burnt and grazed at regular intervals. Frequent defoliation was found to maintain the grassland composition largely unchanged over a period of 30 years. Individual species were, however, found to react strongly to defoliation frequency. Plant demographic studies were therefore carried out to explain this differential response to burning. Three Decreaser and two Increaser I species were studied. In all species examined, recruitment of secondary tillers was stimulated by regular burning, each species being well adapted to a regular fire regime. Differential responses to burning were best explained by the combined effects of the different reproductive capacities and mortality rates of tillers of these species. A biennial spring burning regime was shown to be most suitable for maintaining the most important grass species at their present levels of abundance. Annual winter and biennial spring burning did not result in significant differences in dry matter production. Maximum net roductivity was approximately 230 g/m² in both treatments, placing them amongst the more productive areas of Southern Africa. Examination of canopy recovery growth rates showed that there is little difference in the percentage canopy cover at the end of the growing season when veld is burnt annually in winter or biennially in spring. However, differences in season of burn resulted in exposure to erosive forces at different times of the year. The results of this investigation have highlighted the importance of regular burning during the dormant period in the montane grasslands of Natal.