New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2007) 31(2): 129- 142

Frequency and impact of Holocene fire in eastern South Island, New Zealand

Review Article
Geoffrey M. Rogers 1*
Susan Walker 2
Les M. Basher 3
William G. Lee 2
  1. Research, Development, and Improvement Division, Department of Conservation, PO Box 5244, Dunedin 9016
  2. Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin 9016
  3. Landcare Research, PO Box 69, Lincoln 7608
*  Corresponding author

Our evaluation of pre-settlement Holocene (10 000–1000 BP) fire, using radiocarbon-dated charcoals and pollen and charcoal spectra in pollen diagrams, concludes that fires were infrequent and patchy in the eastern South Island of New Zealand. Charcoal radiocarbon dates point to three broad phases of fire frequency: infrequent patchy fires from 10 000 to 2600 BP; a slightly increased frequency between 2600 and 1000 BP; and an unprecedented increase of fires after 1000 BP, which peaked between 800 and 500 BP. We suggest that natural fire was driven more by vegetation flammability (with ignitibility and combustibility components) than climate within this rain-shadow region, that plant chemistry principally determined fire frequency, and that topography determined the extent of fire. The review suggests that there were rare spatial and temporal instances of a feedback relationship between fire and early-successional grasses in eastern South Island. This occurred only within narrow-range, cool environments, whose equilibrium communities were of flammable, phenolic-rich woody species and grasses, and was predominantly in the late pre-settlement period. Elsewhere, grasses and herbs were understorey components to otherwise low-flammability, hardwood forest and scrub.