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Research article2020Peer reviewedOpen access

Fire and grazing controlling a tropical tree line: Effects of long-term grazing exclusion in Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

Johansson, Maria Ulrika; Granstrom, Anders

Abstract

Aims Tropical tree lines are often associated with abrupt shifts in vegetation, soils and disturbance regimes, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. We analysed the role of grazing, fuels and fire in maintaining a sharp tree line with flammable heathland above non-flammable forest. Location Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Methods The study used grazing exclosures, repeated vegetation sampling, soil analyses and burning and sowing experiments along an altitudinal gradient withHagenia abyssinicaforest,Erica trimeraforest andEricaheathland; all were heavily grazed, the Erica heathland also burnt on short rotation. Results Contrary to expectation, livestock exclusion did not increase flammability in the forest, but instead resulted in a dense carpet of non-flammable herbs. In the heathland, livestock exclusion led to somewhat faster post-fire fuel recovery, but no major change in vegetation. Seeding of tree species resulted in some seedling establishment, but notablyHageniagrew poorly in the heathland, even when protected from livestock. A bioassay, as well as observations of outpost trees on atypical soil above the tree line, suggests that this poor growth is caused by the acidic soils, rather than harsh climate. Despite frequent fires, heathland soils had lower pH and higher organic matter content than forest soils. Below the tree line, tree seedling establishment was successful only in forest gaps, and if livestock was excluded. In both forest and heathland rapid vegetative regeneration in the ground flora after disturbance restricted major species shifts. Conclusions These results suggest that the contrasting fire potential between heathland and forest, and thus the sharp tree line would be maintained, or possibly even accentuated, in the absence of livestock grazing, and thatHageniacolonization upwards into the heathland is restricted not only by fire and grazing, but also the acidic soils, which is a legacy of centuries of dominance byErica.

Keywords

Erica arborea; Erica trimera; Ericaceous soils; forest regeneration; Hagenia abyssinica; heathlands; livestock grazing; pastoral fire; post-fire succession

Published in

Journal of Vegetation Science
2020, Volume: 31, number: 5, pages: 841-853 Publisher: WILEY