Impact of fire on blanket bogs: implications for vegetation and the carbon cycle
Taylor, Emily Siobhan
Peatlands are multiservice ecosystems: they are the largest terrestrial store of carbon in the UK, unique habitats which provide a home for internationally important species and managed for forestry, farming and game management and shooting. This makes understanding the impact of management practices on their ecology important if they are to be sustainably managed for multi-benefits. Fire has long been used to manage peatlands in the UK to improve grazing and habitat provision for livestock and game. The effect of fire on carbon cycling in blanket bogs is of increasing concern as greenhouse gas emissions from land use is now an important management as well as political issue. Gaps however, still exist in our understanding of the controls on greenhouse emissions from blanket bogs and the impact fire may have on them both directly and indirectly by modifying vegetation composition and environmental conditions. The main objective of this research was to assess the effect of fire on greenhouse gas emissions by measuring methane and ecosystem respiration after burning at blanket bog sites across Scotland for a period of up to 3 years and relating changes in fluxes with changes in vegetation composition and abiotic conditions. In addition, the response of the Sphagnum layer to burning was assessed by looking at the recovery of Sphagnum capillifolium in the field and in a novel laboratory experiment. The indirect effects of fire on methane emissions were further investigated by a laboratory experiment devised to test if high temperatures would be fatal to methanotrophic bacteria in the Sphagnum layer, reducing methanotrophy, and thus a mechanism for fire to increase methane emissions in the short term. The results showed that methane emissions and ecosystem respiration were not significantly different in burnt plots when compared to adjacent unburnt plots at each of the three sites studies. Methane emissions were only weakly correlated to the position of the water table and neither methane fluxes or ecosystem respiration correlated with measures of vegetation composition and above ground biomass. Methanotrophy in Sphagnum was found to be difficult to detect, with a high temperature treatment having no significant effect on rates of methane oxidation. S. capillifolium was found to respond to fire by growing new auxiliary stems if the capitulum was consumed or irreversible damaged physiologically by temperatures experienced at the moss surface, with surface temperatures around 400oC with a temperature residency time of 30 seconds on artificially dried samples the most damaging, but not lethal, treatment. These results suggest that low severity fires which only consume the canopy vegetation, not penetrating the peat and leaving the moss layer mostly intact, do not have significant effects on methane emissions and ecosystem respiration in the short and medium term. In addition, it suggests that S.capillifolium can, under certain circumstances, survive a fire with the characteristics of those studied here. These findings reiterate that best practice burning guidelines must continue to ensure that burning is only carried out on blanket bog when conditions are conducive to fires with the characteristics studied here, which had little effect on important components of the carbon cycle and are survivable by at least one of the most common species of Sphagnum.