Initial ecological change in plant and arthropod community composition after wildfires in designated areas of upland peatlands

Wildfires are an increasing concern due to rising temperatures and incidence of droughts associated with changing climate, poor land management, and direct human interference. Most studies of the impact of fire on temperate heathland and bog examined the consequences of controlled or prescribed burning. Less is known about the impacts of uncontrolled wildfires on sites designated for their conservation value. We examined the initial impact and short-term trajectory (3.5 years) of cool temperate peatland plant and arthropod communities on designated upland sites in Northern Ireland following wildfires, that is, unplanned with respect to where and when they occur, severity, and duration. These near simultaneous wildfires were often due to a failure to control prescribed burns. Wildfires were associated with a loss of blanket bog and heath indicator species. Broad vegetation groups showed initial recovery characterized by a decrease in bare ground and increasing cover of shrub species and bryophytes. However, at a species level, Sphagnum spp and bryophyte communities, which are central to peatland ecosystem functioning, showed no sign of recovery to prefire composition. Rather, bryophyte communities became more divergent over the course of the study and were mainly characterized by increased abundance of the alien pioneer acrocarp Campylopus introflexus. Similarly, composition of arthropod communities (ground beetles and spiders) differed between burnt and unburnt areas and showed no evidence of a return to species composition in unburnt areas. The nationally rare beetle Carabus nitens was more common in the aftermath of wildfire. Synthesis. Whilst, long-term recovery was not investigated, these short-term changes suggest enduring detrimental impacts on the distinctive communities associated with peatlands, primarily through the loss of Sphagnum spp., affecting ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and water and soil retention. It may not be possible to restore exact prefire species composition of plant and animal communities. We suggest a precautionary approach involving management of upland vegetation, public education, and vigilance, to prevent further wildfires and protect these key upland habitats.
Publication history: Accepted - 5 January 2023; Published - 11 February 2023.
beetles, blanket bog, burning, dry heath, moorland, recovery, spiders, vegetation, wet heath, wildfire
Kelly, R., Montgomery, W.I. and Reid, N. (2023) ‘Initial ecological change in plant and arthropod community composition after wildfires in designated areas of upland peatlands’, Ecology and Evolution. Wiley. Available at: