The Key to Biodiversity is Friendly Burning

Last year the Environment Committee arranged for Grant Fairley from Springtime Landscaping to present a talk to members outlining the importance of introducing a ‘Grass Burning Program’ for the Greater Woodmead Estate. Unfortunately, whilst well-advertised the talk was not well attended but it did provide an opportunity for those members who were present to raise any questions of interest, elucidations, doubts or apprehensions that they may have had regarding the burn scheduled to have taken place in August. As set out by Grant in his talk to members, he explained why a burn was so essential for our grasslands and especially for the Greater Woodmead Estate as he estimated that the last burn had taken place 40 years ago
when the ground was purchased. Subsequent urbanisation has prevented further burns from taking place. Burning is the only process known to rejuvenate grasslands. This allows for the wild flowers and little herbaceous plants to proliferate and prevents the naturally occurring woody plants from invading the grasslands. Last year’s burn had to be cancelled due to the changing weather patterns which persisted well into September.

The same area scheduled to have been burnt last year in Wilds West as shown on the map and demarcated with a solid red line is scheduled to be burnt during the first two weeks of August this year. An additional area on the right hand side of Rocklands fifth fairway is to be included. This inclusion was approved by the Golf Committee due to the impenetrable condition of the grassland caused by the high infestation of ‘black-jacks’ and because of a constant security risk to our neighbours along the western boundary wall. A visit from Commander Danger Mompati, of the Johannesburg Fire Department to assess our requirements has been done. Permission has been granted to burn the two sections under request. Permission to do a burn is not easily gained but the thoroughness with which we have prepared the areas has made for permission to be granted that much easier. Only the grasslands of the Country Club and Modderfontein in the Greater Johannesburg region have been granted permits to carry out ‘Burning Programs’. As a matter of future planning, Wilds East (right hand side of the road leading to the Club House from the boom gate to the Golf Data offices access road) has been prepared and members will have noticed that the grassland has been cleared of the invasive species of woody plants. The remaining brush has been left ‘in situ’ in order to provide cover for the bare areas in the intervening period to prevent the start of soil erosion and to provide fuel for the future planned burn.

By brush-packing the small trees and shrubs on the bare degraded patches, further degradation is prevented. By packing the brush at ground level several things are achieved. Maximum infiltration of water is ensured, complete decomposition of the brush is achieved plus the brush serves as an ideal microclimate for new growth. The topsoil temperature is regulated and runoff of water is slowed down. The infiltration of water is increased, seed is caught and protected, and the soil organic content improves retaining moisture which ultimately protects the soil against wind erosion. When the burn does occur the ash and nutrients from the burnt brush are absorbed and recycled into the earth with the onset of the rains. Members will also notice a small patch of Protea caffra (Highveld sugarbush) growing on the right hand side before the outcrop of rocks. This Protea species relies heavily on the heat, smoke and carbon deposits from a veld grass fire to germinate and proliferate.

The Environment Committee has over the past number of years done an enormous amount of research into the practice of burning of grasslands, consulting far and wide and if we are to preserve and further enhance the well-being of our grasslands we have very little choice but to burn. Andrew Hankey, our flora consultant and horticulturalist at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens at Witpoortjie has given us his unequivocal support for our program. Andrew and Grant have worked together on many game ranches and farms to restore the grassland areas by way of introducing successful burning programs.

With regards to our slow moving smaller creatures, Grant has assured us and the members present at his talk that the areas to be burnt are divided up into blocks and each morning after gauging the wind direction a sweep is undertaken to ensure that the hedgehogs and tortoises are all collected and moved into areas of safety, remembering that there are no ground nesting birds breeding at this time of the year except for the Blacksmith Lapwings which appear to breed all year round and as our golfers will testify, seem to only nest on the tee boxes and the fairways! An interesting observation that we are likely to witness is that Black-headed Heron sense or see grassland smoke and are immediately attracted to the source to scavenge for rats and mice.

Notices informing all our neighbours as to when the burn will take place will be put out in good time. It is advisable that windows be kept closed as grass ash is not good for curtains!
Should members require any further information, a more detailed paper on aspects of Grass Burning and its merits is available here, at the Woodmead reception or feel free to consult either Fayne Connelly or Dave Robertson of the Environment Committee?

Fayne Connelly

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