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Research article2010Peer reviewedOpen access

Browser selectivity alters post-fire competition between Erica arborea and E. trimera in the sub-alpine heathlands of Ethiopia

Johansson, Maria; Rooke, Tuulikki; Fetene, Maresha; Granström, Anders


Mammalian herbivores have the potential to alter the competitive relations of woody species, if consumption is unevenly distributed between species. At elevations above 3,500 m in the southern Ethiopian highlands, vegetation is dominated by Erica arborea and E. trimera. Both species can potentially grow into short trees, but are burnt on a rotation of 6-10 years, and regenerate by re-sprouting from belowground lignotubers. The regenerating scrub is heavily browsed by cattle. We set up browsing exclosures at three burnt sites to quantify the impact of browsing over a 3-year period. When protected from browsing, E. trimera had similar or better height growth than E. arborea, but in browsed vegetation, E. arborea instead grew taller. Browsing was more intense on E. trimera in the first years after fire, indicating a difference in palatability between the species. We checked if browse quality differed, by analysing shoot contents of acid detergent fibre (ADF), protein, phenolics and tannins. Contrary to expectations, the preferred E. trimera contained more ADF, less protein and had a higher tannin activity than E. arborea. Although the vegetative growth of E. arborea is favoured relative to E. trimera under high browsing pressure, rapid change in abundance would not be expected, since short-interval fire will repeatedly eradicate any gains in vegetative growth. However, within the typical fire return interval of less than 10 years, E. trimera barely reach a reproductive state, whereas E. arborea flower profusely. Under the current regime of fire and browsing, this may in the long run be more important than differences in height growth, leading to a gradual increase in the proportion of E. arborea.


Erica arborea; Erica trimera; Afro-alpine heathland; Fire management; Browser selectivity; Tannin

Published in

Plant Ecology
2010, Volume: 207, number: 1, pages: 149-160 Publisher: SPRINGER