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Research article2012Peer reviewedOpen access

Tending for cattle: traditional fire management in Ethiopian montane heathlands

Johansson, Maria; Fetene, Masresha; Malmer, Anders; Granström, Anders


Fire has long been a principal tool for manipulating ecosystems, notably for pastoralist cultures, but in modern times, fire use has often been a source of conflicts with state bureaucracies. Despite this, traditional fire management practices have rarely been examined from a perspective of fire behavior and fire effects, which hampers dialogue on management options. In order to analyze the rationale for fire use, its practical handling, and ecological effects in high-elevation ericaceous heathlands in Ethiopia, we used three different information sources: interviews with pastoralists, field observations of fires, and analysis of vegetation age structure at the landscape level. The interviews revealed three primary reasons for burning: increasing the grazing value, controlling a toxic caterpillar, and reducing predator attacks. Informants were well aware of critical factors governing fire behavior, such as slope, wind, vertical and horizontal fuel structure, and fuel moisture. Recent burns (1–4 years since fire) were used as firebreaks to control the size of individual burns, which resulted in a mosaic of vegetation of different ages. The age structure indicated an average fire return interval of ~10 years. At these elevations (> 3500 m), the dry period is unreliable, with occasional rains. Of all observed fires, 83% were ignited during very high Fire Weather Index levels, reached during only 11% of all days of the year. Burning is illegal, but if this ban was respected, our data suggest that the Erica shrubs would grow out of reach of cattle within a few years only, creating a dense and continuous canopy. This would also create a risk of large high-intensity wildfires since the landscape is virtually devoid of natural fuel breaks. Under the present management regime, this heathland ecosystem should be quite resilient to degradation by fire due to a relatively slow fuel buildup (limiting fire intervals) and an effective regrowth of Erica shoots. Nevertheless, if burning is done during severe drought, there may be a risk of smoldering fires killing the lignotubers. Given the intimate knowledge of fire behavior and fire effects among these pastoralists, it should be possible to develop a fire management plan that can sustain the present land use and ecosystem, and be sanctioned by both authorities and the local community.


anthropogenic fire; Erica arborea; Erica trimera; fire behavior; fire ecology; forage shrub systems; pastoralist

Published in

Ecology and Society
2012, Volume: 17, number: 3, article number: 19Publisher: the Resilience Alliance (Carleton University)