South Africa — While cattle and game farmers are rejoicing in the recent rains that 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 much of the highly inflammable material now available could lead to large-scale veld fires this coming winter.
Professor 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, 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 include 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 professor 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.
Professor 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The shortage of proper research on the impact of fires on soil and plants has led to burnt areas not being withdrawn from grazing for long enough.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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Snyman’s research findings have been used successfully as guidelines for compensation aspects in several court cases.