Burning wetlands : the influence of fire on wetland vegetation structure and composition.
Water is a very important component of the natural world and human survival but water sources (river systems and wetlands) are becoming increasingly degraded and less functional. In particular the increase of woody C3 species into wetlands is a cause for concern, as they invade wetlands which are predominantly herbaceous. Woody species use more water than herbaceous species and this impacts wetland function. In moister savannahs and grasslands woody species are influenced significantly by fire, and fire is consequently used widely as a means of reducing woody plant density. However, in wetlands there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of fire in combating woody plant encroachment and the general impact of fire. The Kwambonambi wetlands of South Africa have been recently experiencing an invasion by woody species which are both indigenous and alien. This area was historically herbaceous and experienced frequent natural fire but is now largely under timber plantation and thus fire has been mainly excluded. This has led to a continual increase of woody species into the wetland and has seen a change from mainly herbaceous to a matrix of fern, herbaceous grasses and sedges and an invasion of swamp forest species such as Macaranga capensis. This has now affected ecosystem functions and changed fire behaviour in these wetlands. A search through the literature has revealed a lack of studies which investigate the influence of fire on wetland structure and composition. This ambiguity highlights the need for more focused research that will influence management decisions. In order to develop meaningful management strategies, there needs to be a good understanding of the problem and the underlying processes contributing to the degradation and loss of the system you are trying to manage, in this case it is wetlands. This study investigates wetland changes and losses at a small spatial and temporal scale for informing management on the best use of fire on wetlands. A temporal study (a change detection analysis) reveals that the main drivers of the vegetation structure in this landscape are the land use/land cover change in the form of large scale plantation forestry coupled with fire suppression. 92.4% of the landscape has been altered with the greatest degree of change in this landscape accounted for through the change from grassland and herbaceous wetland (1519ha and 524ha loss respectively) to timber plantation and the spread of indigenous forest indicated by an increase of 70% and 11% increase respectively. The large scale plantation forestry in the landscape has led to the drying of the landscape (which affects the hydrology of the wetlands) and therefore reduces the levels of soil saturation. Simultaneously, plantation forests are fire suppression areas to avoid tree loss. These factors, together with the disturbance of converting wetlands into plantation forest and clear felling (which occurred to 7%/155ha of the wetlands in the study site), have allowed forest species such as the fern Staenoclina tenuifolia and Macaranga capensis to invade the wetland areas. Over time, the combination of fire suppression, disturbance and drying encourages the establishment of woody seedlings, turning wetlands into swamp forests/woodlands. This regime shift is more evident in wetlands which were once converted into plantation forest with insufficient woody plant species control to accompany the withdrawal of plantation. The few wetlands which have maintained their herbaceous structure and function are those maintained with fire as a management strategy. A burn experiment shows that fire does have a significant negative effect on tree density in these wetlands-especially previous disturbed wetlands. The recommendation from this study is to remove the forest species out of the wetlands and reintroduce fire (biennial burns) into the management of these wetlands. A better relationship between the forest managers and researchers is recommended to continually co-adapt to any changes occurring in these wetlands.
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