Visitors to almost every protected area in the country will have noticed at some stage that the veld has been burnt, and all that is left is an ugly mess of blackened stumps and ash. Hardly a sight to inspire joy!
The fact is that fire has been a mechanism in the evolution and maintenance of grasslands going back millions of years and culminating in the present day. Our so-called cave-man ancestors lived in grasslands, which were flourishing long before the age of man began. And fire had the biggest influence on these grasslands – and still does. With the unavoidable establishment of enclosed protected areas, with the attendant restrictions on the free movement of game animals, it became a vital necessity to manage the quality of enclosed grasslands. Pastoralists for millenia had used fire to maintain grazing lands for their stock – and game reserve management is no different. The controlled use of fire enables protected area managers to maintain the quality of grasslands and woodlands, and to keep the margins of forests from encroaching into these areas.
But why burn at all? In ancient times veld fires were generally started by lightning strikes during storms. Such fires ranged unchecked over vast areas. The vital component needed for the fire was then in plentiful supply – and that was dead grass. Veld that is not burnt regularly becomes moribund – in other words, the old dead grass stalks restrict the ability of the plant, and of seeds, to produce fresh green grass. Grass cannot grow under a hamper of dead material and soon the veld is characterised by thick, dead vegetation with bare soil between the plants. This results in soil erosion which can quickly degrade a grassland into a nightmare of ‘dongas’ (wash-aways) and bare subsoil. Areas that have the old, dead material burnt off are able to rejuvenate, thus stabilising the soil and providing sweet, nutritious grazing for game animals.
This is why winter visitors to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife protected areas often find a park or game reserve wreathed in flames and smoke. Every protected area management plan has a burning policy which lays down precise guidelines for seasonal controlled burns. Put simply, every protected area is cut up into burning blocks bounded by broad fire-breaks, which assist in controlling fires, whether they be planned or runaway fires. These blocks are burnt every second or third year on a rotational basis. The burning standards and practice, determined by intensive scientific research to determine the veld type, predominant grass species etc, also determines the frequency of burning. National agricultural and biodiversity conservation legislation determines the dates and conditions under which burns may be implemented, with aspects such as wind strength and direction as well as moisture content and humidity being considered.
Burning season is officially from 1 May to 31 October, with fire-breaks completed by the end of July. Most block burning takes place once the first spring rains have fallen but have to be completed by 31 October. If you are planning a winter visit to any protected area, please contact the protected area or resort manager and discuss the “burning question” with him or her. This is pretty important if you are planning to visit the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site because the last thing you want during a hike in the ‘Berg is to have to have your outing spoiled by smoke and blackened veld. There are plenty of wonderful areas to visit even in the burning season and a bit of fore-knowledge will help immensely.
What about the slow creatures and insects that might get caught in a fire? This probably the only real downside of veld-burning. Inevitable some of these creatures are caught in the flames, although many manage to survive under rocks and in burrows. Snakes are usually fast enough to escape a fire, and staff often see a variety of birds such hawks, fork-tailed drongos and other smaller raptors hunting along the fire-line for insects and other small creatures fleeing the fire. One also can see birds such Ground Hornbills, egrets and Secretary Birds stalking amongst the often still-smoking grass tufts in search of those creatures not quick enough to escape the flames. In this way nature, with a bit of human help, provides food for those wise enough to take advantage of the situation. Larger animals, of course, have no problem in evading a fire. Various plants too, have methods of surviving fires by lying dormant below ground, or having thick bark.
An immediate result of a fire is that grazing animals move onto the burnt areas in search of new, green, grass shoots. This can provide some very interesting and rewarding game viewing, although visually the burnt landscape is not all that attractive, but this changes very rapidly and within days one sees a green flush starting to hide the blackened remains of the old grass. Within weeks there is scarcely any sign that the area had been burnt and the cycle is well under way once more.