I was recently at Beaufront, a stunning property owned by farmer and private conservationist Julian von Bibra in the Tasmanian Midlands, working alongside University of Tasmania on an innovative new fire experiment that we hope will give us some insights into the effects of fire and grazing on vegetation composition and structure.
It will also give us a better understanding of the relative impacts of native (wallabies and kangaroos) and non-native (sheep, feral deer, rabbits) herbivores on fires of different sizes and how these interactions shape the landscape.
The research is being led by Professor David Bowman and research associate Ben French, with Bush Heritage’s support. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community carried out the patch burning as part of the experiment. This is perhaps the first time in many decades that Aboriginal people have been able to conduct burns in the Midlands. Patch burning is used by many Indigenous cultures, including in Tasmania where Aboriginal people have managed large parts of the landscapes with fire.
The experimental burns range in size from half a hectare to five hectares, and we will monitor herbivore feeding patterns and the vegetation before and after the burning. Autumn is a good time to burn these areas as the wild windy weather starts to die down and the land is starting to get some decent rain that helps the plants to quickly recover.
We envisage the results from the study will help refine burning strategies to meet conservation and bushfire risk-reduction goals, as well as contribute to broader debates surrounding fire and herbivore activity. Grazing is often cited as a way to maintain diversity in grassy ecosystems but some plant species need the smoke or heat from fire to germinate. If germination rates of some species are kept low through the absence of fire then the diversity of these ecosystems may gradually decline. If we use fire to help maintain diversity then we need to know the impacts that the different herbivores have during the critical recovery phase.
The project is being conducted in cooperation with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corportation, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Greening Australia and the Tasmania Fire Service. Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Greening Australia and Bush Heritage Australia are working collaboratively with the local community in conservation projects across the Tasmanian Midlands, including the property Beaufront. Our collective aim is to protect and restore the natural values within this nationally important and incredibly rich landscape.
The research project is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, supported by Bush Heritage Australia.