New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2005) 29(2): 291-297

Population age structure and recent Dracophyllum spread on subantarctic Campbell Island

Research Article
Kim L. Bestic 1,2
Richard P. Duncan 1,3,*
Matt S. McGlone 3
Janet M. Wilmshurst 3
Colin D. Meurk 3
  1. Bio-Protection and Ecology Division, P.O. Box 84, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand
  2. Present address: Jed Vale, Gore Bay, R.D. 3 Cheviot, North Canterbury, New Zealand
  3. Landcare Research, P.O. Box 69, Lincoln, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Mid to late 20th century expansion of Dracophyllum scrub into tussock grassland on subantarctic Campbell Island has been attributed to the collective effects of global warming, cessation of farming in 1931, and continued grazing by feral sheep. To determine the importance of these, we dated the timing of scrub expansion by aging 241 Dracophyllum plants in 17 plots chosen to sample the range of environments this shrub/ small tree occupies on Campbell Island. Three plots, in lowland, well-drained, locations were dominated by large, old Dracophyllum that had established between 1846 and 1940. Virtually all shrubs in the remaining plots had established after 1940, with peaks in 1970 and 1985. The pattern of establishment does not coincide with any marked change in the temperature regime, although a prolonged period of relatively dry winters (c. 1970–1990) coincides with a late surge of regeneration on very wet sites. The removal of feral sheep from different parts of the island at different times is also unrelated to the pattern of establishment. In contrast, Dracophyllum spread follows farm abandonment in 1931 when regular burning ceased, suggesting that Dracophyllum is invading sites from which it was excluded by fire. However, the earliest reports from the mid 19th century indicate that tussock grassland was previously the dominant vegetation cover on the island, with limited Dracophyllum scrub. It is possible that the reduction of the dense tussock grasslands by fire and grazing in late 19th–early 20th century opened a regeneration window for Dracophyllum scrub to spread once burning ceased.