Research into veld fires in grassland can now help with scientifically-grounded evidence
2015-04-10

While cattle and game farmers are rejoicing in the recent rains which large areas of the country received in the past growing season, an expert from the University of the Free State’s Department of Animal, Wildlife, and Grassland Sciences, says that much of the highly inflammable material now available could lead to large-scale veld fires this coming winter.

Prof Hennie Snyman, professor and  researcher in the Department of Animal, Wildlife, and Grassland Sciences, warns that cattle and game farmers should be aware, in good time, of this problem which is about to rear its head. He proposes that farmers must burn firebreaks as a precaution.

At present, Prof Snyman focuses his research on the impact of fire and burning on the functioning of the grassland ecosystem, especially in the drier grassland regions.

He says the impact of fire on the functioning of ecosystems in the ‘sour’ grassland areas of Southern Africa (which includes Kwazulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape, and the Harrismith environs) is already well established, but less information  is available for ‘sweet’ semi-arid grassland areas. According to Prof Snyman, there is no reason to burn grassland in this semi-arid area. Grazing by animals can be effectively used because of the high quality material without having to burn it off. In the sourer pasturage, fire may well form part of the functioning of the grassland ecosystem in view of the fact that a quality problem might develop after which the grass must rejuvenate by letting it burn.

Prof Snyman, who has already been busy with the research for ten years, says quantified data on the impact of fire on the soil and plants were not available previously for the semi-arid grassland areas. Fires start frequently because of lightning, carelessness, freak accidents, or damaged power lines, and farmers must be recompensed for this damage.

The shortage of proper research on the impact of fires on soil and plants has led to burnt areas not being withdrawn from grazing for long enough. The lack of information has also led to farmers, who have lost grazing to fires, not being compensated fairly or even being over-compensated.

“When above-and below-ground plant production, together with efficient water usage, is taken into account, burnt grassland requires at least two full growing seasons to recover completely.”       

Prof Snyman says farmers frequently make the mistake of allowing animals to graze on burnt grassland as soon as it begins to sprout, causing considerable damage to the plants.

“Plant roots are more sensitive to fire than the above-ground plant material. This is the reason why seasonal above-ground production losses from fire in the first growing season after the fire can amount to half of the unburnt veld. The ecosystem must first recover completely in order to be productive and sustainable again for the long term. The faster burnt veld is grazed again, the longer the ecosystem takes to recover completely, lengthening the problem with fodder shortages further.  

Prof Snyman feels that fire as a management tool in semi-arid grassland is questionable if there is no specific purpose for it, as it can increase ecological and financial risk management in the short term.

Prof Snyman says more research is needed to quantify the impact of runaway fires on both grassland plant productivity and soil properties in terms of different seasonal climatic variations.

“The current information may already serve as valuable guidelines regarding claims arising from unforeseen fires, which often amount to thousands of rand, and are sometimes based on unscientific evidence.”

Prof Snyman’s research findings have been used successfully as guidelines for compensation aspects in several court cases.

 


FACULTY CONTACT

T: +27 51 401 2240 or humanities@ufs.ac.za

Postgraduate:
Marizanne Cloete: +27 51 401 2592

Undergraduate:
Katlego Mabulana: +27 51 401 2495
Juanita Hlongwane: +27 51 401 3269

Humanities photo next to contact block

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful, to better understand how they are used and to tailor advertising. You can read more and make your cookie choices here. By continuing to use this site you are giving us your consent to do this.

Accept