Frequent planned fire can prevent succession to woody plant dominance in montane temperate grasslands.
Natural temperate grasslands are endangered throughout their range, largely because of their almost complete conversion to agriculture, and by changes in fire and grazing regimes. Woody encroachment by shrubs is a global threat to the structure, function and composition of grasslands. We wished to determine the characteristics of fire regimes that prevent or reverse woody plant encroachment, maintain native species richness and minimise exotic plant invasion in temperate grassland at the Surrey Hills Tasmania, where a fire management plan with variable prescriptions had been implemented for two decades. We collected floristic, fire regime and environmental data from 105 quadrats (1 × 10 m) in 2016/2017, and compared the data from 2016/2017 to that from a 1994 survey using the same methods. A high frequency and cover of native shrubs characterised areas unburned for at least 20 years before 2017, but not those unburned in the 20 years before 1994. Shrub cover began to strongly increase after a decade without fire and was greater on larger plains. Native species richness declined with an increasing minimum interval between fires and increased with elevation. It began to decline at the quadrat scale when shrub cover attained 40%. In the data set as a whole, 17 of the 67 most abundant taxa were absent from all quadrats unburned for 20 years before 2017, indicating a high potential for loss of species at a landscape scale in the absence of fire. Exotic species cover was randomly distributed in relation to fire regimes and environment. The current fire management regime has largely been at a sufficient frequency and minimum interval (approximately a decade between fires) to maintain the grassiness and native species richness of treated plains, which is fortunate given that recent land-use change appears to have resulted in increased frequency of shrubs independent of their cover.