Long-term effects of rotational prescribed burning and low-intensity sheep grazing on blanket-bog plant communities.
The importance of peatlands is being increasingly recognized internationally for both the conservation of biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services; strategies are being developed world-wide to help maintain their integrity. Prescribed burning has been highlighted as a threat with considerable debate over its use as it is perceived to produce a Calluna vulgaris monoculture and a decline in preferred peat-forming species. We investigated the impact of prescribed burning on vegetation composition and diversity in a long-term experiment at Moor House NNR in northern England. The study comprised a comparison between no-burn reference plots last burned in ca. 1924 and an experiment where all plots were burned in 1954/5. Within the experiment, the effects of very light sheep grazing vs. no grazing and three burning rotations (no-burn since 1954/5, repeat-burning at 10- and 20-year intervals) were tested. Calluna vulgaris and Hypnum jutlandicum cover and bryophyte species richness increased in the least-disturbed, no-burn reference plots, but bryophyte cover did not. Lichen diversity declined. Within the formal experiment, low-intensity sheep grazing had little impact but there were substantive changes produced by the different burning rotations. There was divergence between the burning rotation treatments with the least-disturbed, no-burn treatment changing towards a C. vulgaris-H. jutlandicum community, whereas the most-disturbed 10-year rotation had a much greater abundance of both Eriophorum and Sphagnum spp. Synthesis and applications. Our findings suggest that blanket-bog vegetation on peat responds to prescribed burning in a complex manner. Where burn return interval is long (>20 years), C. vulgaris becomes dominant and there was no evidence that preferred peat-forming species (Eriophorum/Sphagnum) increased. Where burn return interval is short (10 years), E. vaginatum/Sphagnum abundance increased. We found no evidence to suggest that prescribed burning was deleterious to the abundance of peat-forming species; indeed, it was found to favour them. These results inform conservation management policy for blanket bogs in the UK and more generally for future wildfire-mitigation strategies on dwarf-shrub-dominated peatlands elsewhere. Some lessons for the management of long-term experimental studies are also discussed.