High-intensity fires may have limited medium-term effectiveness for reversing woody plant encroachment in an African savanna.
Woody thickening or 'bush encroachment' is a growing concern in savannas worldwide, and can reportedly be reversed by applying high-intensity fires. Preliminary findings following experimental fires in 2010 and 2013 indicated that woody plant cover declined 1 year after high-intensity fires, but increased after low-intensity fires. However, the longer-term outcomes of high-intensity fires are largely unknown. To establish longer-term outcomes, we re-assessed sites subjected to low, medium and high-intensity fire treatments 10 years after the initial experimental fires. We compared woody vegetation structure in 2010 with that in 2020 using both ground surveys and airborne LiDAR. Ground surveys revealed increases in the number of stems and individual shrubs (< 10 m tall) over 10 years, and decreases in shrub height, with no significant differences between treatments. Large trees (≥ 10 m) declined by about 65% in number due to ongoing high mortality across treatments over 10 years. LiDAR surveys revealed significant but very small differences in woody plant height and cover between treatments after 10 years. Median height was around 2 m in all treatments, and 90th percentile tree height was moderately taller in the low fire treatment. Mean canopy cover was about 55% in all treatments. The treatments therefore did not result in a meaningful reversal of woody encroachment with no discernible difference between the treatment sites after 10 years. Synthesis and applications. The application of high-intensity fires did not reverse woody encroachment in the longer term. In addition, the application of such treatments would be impractical at a large scale. Within a framework of strategic adaptive management, the next logical step would be to attempt a different approach. In this case, it is intended to use early or late wet season burns to increase the mortality of shrubs when they are in a more vulnerable phenological state. This study illustrates the importance of ongoing long-term monitoring, review and adaptation for finding practical ways to achieve desired ecological outcomes.