A new study led by The Australian National University (ANU) has found thatanimals may be an “untapped” resource to help manage fuel loads for bushfires.

Lead author Dr Claire Foster said Australia’s recent summer has shown thatwildlife can be severely impacted by bushfires, but the report found thatanimals can also influence bushfires in surprising ways.

“Large grazing animals – including cows, kangaroos and rhinos – eat largeamounts of grass, and by doing so can reduce the size and spread of grasslandfires,” said Dr Foster from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.

“In other environments, the activities of smaller animals, such as a mallefowlbuilding nests, bettongs digging for food or even insects eating fallen leavescan also have important effects on the fuel that bushfires burn.

“Conserving and restoring populations of these animals might have two benefits– the conservation of the species themselves, and keeping fuel amounts low inthe forests and woodlands they live in.”

Dr Foster said events like the most recent bushfire season and the COVID-19pandemic could reduce animals’ positive contribution to reducing fuel loads.

“If populations of these animals don’t recover from events like this summer’swidespread bushfires, that could have long-term consequences for future firerisk,” she said.

“One thing I am concerned about at the moment is the impact of the COVID-19crisis on conservation and monitoring efforts in Australia. Many conservationscientists have had to shut down or significantly reduce their fieldwork atwhat is a critical time for the recovery of wildlife populations.”

Dr Foster warned against over-stating the role that fuel, and hence animals,plays in fire behaviour.

“Fuel can have a strong influence early in a fire, and under moderate fireconditions. But catastrophic mega-fires are largely driven by weather anddrought conditions,” she said.

“However, reducing fuel loads is certainly an important part of authorities’bushfire management strategies.”

Grass-eating mammals such as cows, sheep and kangaroos, can be useful to helpmanage fuel in grassland ecosystems, Dr Foster said.

“In some parts of Australia, cows are regularly used to keep fuel levels downin grassland reserves. But our report has shown that grazing animals don’talways have the expected effect of suppressing fires,” she said.

“What’s important to consider is not just what these grazing animals eat, butalso what they choose not to eat. In some environments, such as in alpineareas or forests, livestock will eat some grasses and herbs but leave behindother plants like shrubs and tree seedlings.”

Over time, a grassland might become a shrubland, which can be a much morechallenging proposition for firefighters, Dr Foster said.

“A key message of our report is that land managers should consider how theanimal will affect fuel structure and condition – which includes moisture andchemical content – not just the amount of fuel.”

The research is published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and is availableat: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1alBVcZ3WnzGD

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