After the devastating fires endured in the Overstrand during January 2019, the sound and smell of a fire brings different images to different people. Surprisingly, fire is one of our greatest tools for biodiversity conservation and fuel management, but as we as a community experienced it, it is also one of our most destructive forces.
About 70% of the ecosystems that cover South Africa are fire-adapted. They need to burn in order to maintain their ecological integrity. But because of human activity, there is a need to manage fire in a manner that is appropriate for the land-use and land-type, while maintaining natural processes and patterns as far as possible.
Fire, however, when managed and controlled, benefits our natural areas and is actually vital to the survival of several living species. It removes low-growing underbrush and cleans the floor of debris, which opens it up to the sunlight and nourishes the soil. Reducing this competition for nutrients allows established vegetation to grow stronger and healthier.
Many people have asked if they can remove the burnt standing trees and shrubs that remain after a fire because they look ugly and spoil the beauty of the regenerating species.
Why it is important to leave these dead trees and shrubs standing
The lack of old, dying or burnt vegetation is a major cause of biodiversity loss. Many species rely on dead or dying trees, logs, and branches for their survival. The removal of decaying branches from the natural veld after a fire can lead to the drastic decline in species such as insects, beetles, fungi, and lichens. Species relying on this material for food and/or shelter make up a large group of species in our Fynbos-dominated biome.
Some specialist beetles are found in the early stages of wood decay and are followed by predators and scavenging beetles and other insects. Birds and small mammals prey on these insects, which are a very important food source for them. Small rodents and birds assist with the seed dispersal of vegetation. In fact, some species depend on these dead and decaying logs and branches for shelter in these barren, burnt landscapes: tortoises, snakes, geckos and lizards, to name but a few. These dead trees and shrubs and the insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals belong together like a braai and boerewors.
Even lichens and fungi are dependent on dead, decaying vegetation. When lichens die, they contribute organic matter to the soil, which further improves the quality of the soil so that more plants can grow. Lichens perform useful functions in nature, such as providing shelter for other organisms. They also provide food for animals, and materials that they can use to build their homes or nests.
Dead trees and shrubs fill other physical roles as well. As long as they are standing, they create barriers or fences that slow down wind speeds that can cause wind-blown sand and sand erosion. The sand that is trapped around the base of stems helps to capture and hold moisture that saturates the ground, providing additional moisture to re-growing trees.
So next time you see fire-blackened trees or shrubs scattered throughout the burnt landscape, try to view the scene in a different light. All will benefit by your change of heart.
The Overstrand Municipality urges residents throughout the Overstrand to please refrain from cutting down and removing burnt vegetation, as these actions can add further devastation to the rehabilitation of the veld. Call the Overstrand Environmental Management Services Department 028 316 3724 or 028 313 8000 for guidance on how to tackle these issues in a responsible manner. You can also send an email to Senior Environmental Manager, Liezl de Villiers, on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.