Effects of fire frequency and microhabitat on the ground layer in a grassy woodland.
Grassy woodlands worldwide are vertically structured by trees, a ground layer of grasses and forbs, and a variable mid-storey. In Western Sydney's Cumberland Plain Woodland this mid-storey is increasingly dominated by the prickly shrub Bursaria spinosa Cav. subsp. spinosa. We investigated whether tree and shrub vegetation affects species richness and composition of ground layer microhabitats in this woodland, and whether fire frequency directly affects the ground layer in addition to any indirect effects via overstorey vegetation. Replicate sites were located in areas that had burnt with a frequency that was high, moderate or low. All sites had a similar time since last fire. Three microhabitats (open, under Bursaria, around tree) within each site were sampled for species richness and composition of native and exotic species. Native species richness was not significantly affected by either microhabitat or fire frequency, for total species, grasses or forbs; however the relative abundance of native grasses decreased significantly as fire frequency declined, while the relative abundance of native forbs increased. Exotic species richness was lowest at high fire frequency and significantly higher at low fire frequency. Species composition was significantly affected by both microhabitat and fire frequency combining independently. Planned burning at relatively short intervals can help managers retain grassy habitat for open patch species, habitat for ground layer species that do best under frequent fire, and a robust Themeda triandra Forssk. sward antagonistic to weeds.