REPORT-BACK AFTER THE PRESCRIBED BURN AT SWARTDAM, RIEBEEK-KASTEEL
By Stephen Cousins, PhD student at Stellenbosch University (Conservation Ecology & Entomology department)
A prescribed vegetation fire was conducted by the Greater Cederberg Fire Protection Association (GCFPA) and the West Coast Fire & Rescue Services (WCFRS) on a large koppie on the farm Swartdam just south of Riebeek-Kasteel on Monday 24th April 2017. The koppie is home to fynbos shrublands and critically endangered Swartland Shale Renosterveld. The burn was requested for a project that is currently being conducted on the ecology of the Renosterveld of the Swartland. The focus of the project is on the importance of fire for the ecological functioning of Renosterveld, as well as the potential for Renosterveld to recover after clearing invasions of alien trees. We currently have a very limited understanding of the role that fire plays as an ecosystem driver in Renosterveld, and by studying this important aspect of Renosterveld ecology, we will then be able to provide guidance for the management of our very special critically endangered Renosterveld remnants. The project is being funded by the National Research Foundation, Fynbos Forum/Table Mountain Fund, and the Botanical Education Trust.
The fire at Swartdam was one of four prescribed burns that have been conducted by the GCFPA and WCFRS in renosterveld remnants in the Swartland since 2015. These burns have been conducted not only to allow field work to be undertaken in order to assess the response of the vegetation to the fires for the purposes of the project, but they have also served as ecological burns which are beneficial for the long-term health and persistence of the veld. Most of the renosterveld remnants in the Swartland have not burned in many decades, and without the assistance of the GCFPA and WCFRS these veld patches would probably remain unburned for many more decades, and the vegetation would likely be negatively affected by this. With the collaborative partnership formed between GCFPA, WCFRS, landowners and researchers, Integrated Fire Management is a reality in the West Coast District. It actually is being implemented on the ground.
The vegetation at Swartdam was very old and dense (the last fire was approximately 60 years ago). Fynbos fires naturally occur every 7-15 years, so this was an extremely long time to go without burning. Fire is a natural and essential part of the ecology of the flora of the Cape. Without fire there are many plant species that simply will not reproduce, as they depend on the heat and smoke from the fire to stimulate their seeds to germinate. The prescribed burn at Swartdam covered a very large area, and the fire went very smoothly. The team did a superb job, and at no point was there any concern about the fire getting out of hand. The local farmers were also very pleased that the burn was done, as it significantly reduced their risks of runaway fires on their properties.
The burned veld on the koppie will be visited regularly over the coming winter and spring to document the plant species that come up after the fire. Formal data collection for the PhD project will take place in August and September. We are really looking forward to seeing all the plants that will emerge over the coming months. The veld at Swartdam, like many other Swartland veld remnants is very under-botanized, so with intensive field work we might even be lucky enough to find a new species!
A BIG thank you to the GCFPA and WCFRS and the funders of the project for their support and assistance. Without all their help this project simply would not have been possible.