New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2011) 35(1): 96- 113

Drainage, soil fertility and fire frequency determine composition and structure of gumland heaths in northern New Zealand

Research Article
Beverley R. Clarkson 1,*
Mark C. Smale 1
Peter A. Williams 2
Susan K. Wiser 3
Rowan P. Buxton 3
  1. Landcare Research, Private Bag 3127, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand
  2. Landcare Research, Private Bag 6, Nelson 7042, New Zealand
  3. Landcare Research, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Vegetation and soils were sampled at remaining gumland heath ecosystems in northern New Zealand to determine vegetation patterns, environmental controls and major threats to long-term persistence. Classification and ordination techniques identified six vegetation types reflecting differences in drainage, rainfall, altitude, nutrients, and time since fire. Two modal types reflected opposite ends of the main environmental spectra. Leptospermum scoparium (Myrtaceae) shrubland occurred on relatively better drained sites with lower rainfall, altitude, and soil nutrient levels, whereas Gleichenia dicarpa (Gleicheniaceae) fernland typically occurred on more poorly drained sites with higher rainfall, altitude, and nutrient levels. Another widespread vegetation type dominated by both Leptospermum scoparium and Gleichenia dicarpa occupied plots of intermediate drainage, rainfall, altitude and nutrients. The three remaining types were of limited distribution and reflected uncommon combinations of environmental conditions or recent fire. Low soil nutrients in gumlands (mean total N = 0.182%, total P = 0.004%, oven-dry weight) are reflected in low Leptospermum scoparium foliage nutrients (mean total N = 0.858%, total P = 0.034%, δ15N = δ6.06‰, oven-dry weight) and slow growth rates (mean annual height growth rate = 11.90 cm year–1), as in heathlands in Australia and South Africa. Gumlands are threatened by non-native plant species invasion, especially Hakea sericea (Proteaceae); habitat destruction for agricultural, industrial, and suburban development; and nutrient enrichment from adjacent agricultural land. Currently, fire is much less common in gumlands (mean time since fire = 18.4 years) than during early European settlement and some communities are apparently reverting to forest. Research to investigate the use of fire as a management tool is recommended for long-term conservation of New Zealand gumlands.