Tony Rebello comments on Fynbos and Fire

Dr Tony Rebelo of South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria with expertise in Botany, is also the Scientific Officer for the Protea Atlas Project. He obtained his PhD in Zoology at UCT in 1992 on the topic of the Preservation of the Cape Flora.

He has co-authored books on Pollination Ecology, Proteas and Vegetation types of South Africa, as well as numerous scientific publications on these topics.

His special interests are conservation planning, protea ecology and encouraging amateurs to get involved in scientific research. To this end he has championed the design of user-friendly field guides, the use of common names for plants and also the Protea Atlas Project.

Tony’s comments:

‘Leave the Fynbos alone.  It is 100% adapted to fire and anything you do will be negative.  Forget about any restoration: if Fynbos cannot restore itself then there is nothing you can do about it.

Your problem is primarily one of alien control.    Where the veld is pasture or plantation or garden, the goals will be obvious: restore the system to its desired goal by any means acceptable.   For invaded areas of Fynbos, your aim should be to remove the aliens without compromising the Fynbos restoration.  This means:

·         Get in early, before the aliens take over

·         Target areas of low infestation Fynbos for priority rapid and manual alien removal.  Under no circumstances any chemicals or vehicular methods.  All that is required here is that the aliens are managed.  Every attempt by engineers to want to prevent erosion or any other perceived threat should be totally prevented.  Natural ecosystems are capable of looking after themselves.

·         Target areas of high infestation but good quality fynbos for urgent manual alien removal.  Included here should be areas degraded that contain highly threatened species, and ex-plantations with good restoration potential.    If at all possible, no chemicals and no vehicular methods should be used.  Here the concern is damage done by clearing and possible subsequent effects.  Careful contour stacking and access should eliminate erosion issues.  Getting in early will keep waste fuel loads (stacks) low, allow easy access,  and allow optimal fynbos recovery.  Where chemicals are needed, the teams dealing with species requiring mechanical control should complete the site before the chemical teams enter and careful supervision of winds, application and methods is required.  The Emergency here is NOT erosion or restoration but the Emergency IS getting aliens out over as large an area as fast as possible with minimal  damage to the natural Fynbos recovery.
From Tokai, the problem is that the alien control teams ignore the priority setting by ecologists and SANParks and do their own thing.  At Tokai SANParks had to send in special teams for the priority areas because W4W were not interested in any triage or priority sites identified by other agencies.  This issues will need urgent attention.
Provided aliens are quickly controlled Fynbos regeneration can be largely passive: very little restoration is needed.  For plantations some overstorey serotinous guilds need to be restored, but little else.  By the time the aliens are removed (2-3 years) it is too late to do active restoration, except in a few, localized, heavily-damaged areas where the ground is still totally bare one season after alien removal.

·         Areas degraded or transformed or totally invaded will have to wait.  Alien control here may have to be extreme (machine and chemical).  Following alien clearing, management of erosion (by stacking, sandbagging, erosion barriers, managing access), fuel reduction (burning of stacks) and active restoration (by minimizing stack area, minimizing impact in better fynbos pockets, spreading seeds, planting plants) may be needed.  However, these are currently not urgent, and Fynbos restoration is best geared towards after the next fire (allowing assessment of recovery and the missing guilds for this fire cycle).  Fynbos restoration is also geared towards rainfall events, and these are not usually predictable, although the current drought cycle would suggest that it should be postponed until the cycle wets up.    This is not Emergency issue.

·          Some species require special attention.  Blackwood is especially a problem and must be targeted for two cycles of clearing per year.  Elective frilling with spot spray of coppice is required.

Regarding CREW, I would suggest that for the first two or three years they should be focused on identifying areas of good quality Fynbos and assessing threatened species in the area.  Seed collection can wait until the degraded areas need restoration, but the scale of the restoration will probably require professional bulk collecting.  However, CREW can during their surveys, identify early-seral species that are prolifically producing long-lived seeds that might be useful for the later restoration in the local area.  However, collecting the seeds is best done by more specialized teams.
I would regard the documentation of the Fynbos recovery as a CREW Emergency, and CREW should not be diverted from the monitoring for seed collection.  Some of the Emergency funds for management of the post-fire area should be channeled to CREW for these extra tasks.  Regarding the seeds, it is one thing collecting a few hundred grams of seeds for the Millennium Seed Bank, but collecting a few tons needed for large-scale restoration is not a task for volunteers and should be tackled by nurseries and landscaping agencies who should have some expertise in this.

If the current strategy of putting out all fires continues, and no fuel-reduction, prescribed burns are implemented, then in 30 years time we will have the entire situation repeated.  Aliens will make it worse, but the real cause is simply large fuel loads accumulating into a natural drought cycle.  Without managing the fuel, in 20-30 years time we will have the same situation.  More money and equipment at fighting fires (without fuel reduction) may push the period to 30-40 years, but the fires when they come – under conditions where control is impossible – will be far, far worse.  Working on fire should change its strategy from putting out fires to controlling fuel loads (using fire, of course).