Experts question aspects of prescribed burning

From The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The University of Western Australia, and the, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, the scientists argue that deliberately increasing the frequency of fires may lead to ecosystem degradation and loss of biodiversity.

In a paper published this month in Trends in Plant Science they acknowledge that as climate change increases the combustibility of vegetation, human lives and property are more at risk.

However, they suggest that prescribed burning — a key practice by most environmental managers — may cause more problems because, they say, there is actually little evidence that Mediterranean-climate plants such as those found in Australia are fire-adapted.

Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and UWA graduate Professor Stephen Hopper said: “Dealing with fire management is a complex business, especially when the dual aims of protection of life and property and of biodiversity conservation coincide.

“Our analysis reveals that it is naive on present evidence to assume that Australian plants are adapted to fire, and that prescribed burning regimes are not only good for the bush but can be applied in any fashion and frequency with impunity. Rather, we should be cautious in prescribed burning practices if biodiversity conservation is an aim, ensuring that good scientific design and adaptive management are applied to local situations, so that we learn as we go.

“Our paper is a plea for better science and closer working relationships between fire managers and scientists to achieve the best outcomes for biodiversity conservation where that is a priority.”

The paper’s authors argue that the role of fire in engendering adaptive traits in Mediterranean plants has never been tested.

Traits traditionally regarded as evidence of adaption to fire, including smoke-induced germination, co-occur in ecosystems which are not fire-prone and also stimulate germination in plants such as lettuce and tomatoes, they write.

“Mediterranean climates and their unique ecosystems are only found on five per cent of the land surface of the Earth, yet they contain 20 per cent of the plant species of the world. The effective management and long-term protection of their biodiversity is a priority that is being made increasingly difficult by human population pressures and the as-yet not fully understood impacts of climate change,” the authors write.

“Preventing an increase in fire frequency — instead of prescribed burning — can be crucial for maintaining soil integrity, water supplies, water quality and biodiversity. Suitable management practices are therefore difficult to predict.”

Notes to Editors;

For more information please contact the RBG Kew Press Office on 020 8332 5607 or email [email protected]

To contact the University of West Australia Press Office, or lead author Don Bradshaw, please email Janine MacDonald on [email protected] or phone (+61 8) 6488 5563 / (+61 4) 32 637 716

Full citation for the paper;

Bradshaw, S.D., Dixon, K.W., Hopper, S.D., Lambers, H. and Turner, S.R. (2011). Little evidence for fire-adapted traits in Mediterranean climate regions. Trends in Plant Science 16, 69-76.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/13601385

About the Authors;

The paper’s lead author Emeritus Professor Don Bradshaw is a Senior Research Fellow at University of Western Australia’s School of Animal Biology. His co-authors are Professor Kingsley Dixon, Director of Plant Science, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Winthrop Professor Hans Lambers, Head of UWA’s School of Plant Biology and one of the world’s most highly cited plant scientists and Assistant Professor Shane Turner also from UWA’s School of Plant Biology.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world’s wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25% by 2020, and its enormous potential for future conservation can only be fulfilled with the support of the public and other funders.

Kew receives funding from the UK Government through Defra for approximately half of its income and is also reliant on support from other sources. Without the voluntary monies raised through membership, donations and grants, Kew would have to significantly scale back activities at a time when, as environmental challenges become ever more acute, its resources and expertise are needed in the world more than ever. Kew needs to raise significant funds both in the UK and overseas. Members of the public can support the work of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership by getting involved with the ‘Adopt a Seed, Save a Species’ campaign. For £25 an individual can adopt a seed or for £1000 anyone can save an entire species. www.kew.org/adoptaseed.

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