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Cows and cremation – fighting fire with fire

By Jack Ashby, on 20 June 2011

In my last post I begun to talk about the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s ecologists that I have joined for a month in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. It’s the dry season here and while most of the land isn’t underwater the annual ecological trapping survey is underway.

This involves trapping small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs and doing bird and vegetation surveys to assess what lives in various different habitats here. A couple of major investigations are underway – the purpose isn’t just to create a list of residents. About half of the reserve has had cattle removed from it (because of seemingly bizarre land-leasing laws this conservation NGO is technically required to run their wildlife sanctuary as a cattle station), and one question is to ask what impact that has on the ecology. It’s easy to predict that the many small mammals that rely on grass seed would be affected by these massive grazers, and this is what the data are suggesting.

The investigation is only a few years old but fairly immediate response not related to grazing pressures is that pandanus, a palm-like plant that grows along creeks has spread significantly. Although cattle don’t eat pandanus they do kill it off by trampling it as they wallow in the rivers. It is now making a comeback here, and it brings with it the animals that live in it – threatened purple-crowned fairy wrens and buff-sided robins have risen sharply in numbers.

Today I have been doing something incredibly exciting related to another massive project AWC are working on – Ecofire. I’ve been in a helicopter over some of the most remote parts of the Kimberley dropping incendiary devices out of the door to start fires.

Burning huge tracts of wilderness might not appear to be at the heart of conservation but it has the potential to have a massively positive impact. After Europeans first started claiming this country and aboriginal management came to a stop, the way the land burnt changed drastically. Before Europeans, aborigines regularly burnt the savannas for a variety of reasons including making hunting and traveling easier. This left a patchwork of habitats of varying ages since their last fire.

Without this fire regime areas went unburnt for years, leaving a massive amount of combustible material in the system. When lightning strikes and ignites it the fires are huge, killing all the big trees and burning most things in its path. By regularly burning areas the fuel can’t build up and the fires are less intense. And it creates breaks at which lightning struck fires, which would otherwise become massive, stop in their tracks.

AWC are working with various agencies including CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) to determine the effect of a return to more traditional fire regimes, both on the wildlife and, intriguingly, on the whole climate. This could be a massive deal. If burning regularly, early in the dry season decreases the total amount of fuel burnt (compared to the high intensity fires caused later in the season by lightning), then these “ecofires” could reduce the amount of carbon being released.

The wildlife trapping surveys are just part of it – to see how the animals and plants are affected by the fires. Other work is being done to calculate exactly how much carbon and other greenhouse gases are being emitted by each kind of fire. The matter is coming up before parliament: the carbon saved by early low intensity fires could be used for emissions trading schemes – a revenue source that is of interest to more than just conservationists.

5 Responses to “Cows and cremation – fighting fire with fire”

  • 1
    Rock rats and pitfall traps: A zoologist’s holiday | Journal of Technology and Economic Development | Future Technology | Green Technology | Military Technology | Business | Trading | Finance | Computer | Robots | Entertainment | Games | GPS | Softw wrote on 5 July 2011:

    […] Part of what I have been doing with the AWC, on this trip and on previous visits, was comparing what we trapped in areas that are deliberately burnt early in the year when fires are less intense to areas that are started by lightning later in the year when they can burn for months, spread hundreds of kilometres wide and burn at such high temperatures that very little can survive. To read more about this, check out my posts on the museum’s blog. […]

  • 2
    Blade CX2 wrote on 28 July 2011:

    This is a very interesting read. I’d be very curious to see the survey results on how this does affect the wildlife. The carbon emissions testing is something that also interests me. I can’t wait to read more about this.

  • 3
    Matt Rogen wrote on 13 December 2011:

    Interesting article. I’d also be interested in seeing the results of the survey. Is there any chance of a follow up post?

  • 4
    Lampe moderne wrote on 28 March 2012:

    We must preserve nature. The proctection of the environment is a duty for every citizen.Sometimes we ignore the damages caused by fires to wildlife. animals and plants are all affected . In addition to that gas emissions are harmful to human health. Ecologists always spend their time educating everyone on the misdeeds of these fires. Working with various agencies ,they are establishing a way that help return to more traditional fire regimes. And they beleive that « ecofires » will play a major role in reducing the amount of carbon being released. It affects not only wildlife but human beings are also concerned.

  • 5
    Kaylee wrote on 2 September 2012:

    A well known crematorium is like any other industrial waste
    incinerator, there is little pollution created except for carbon dioxide and inorganic ash. Indians are using Cow Dung to cremate the dead.Using cow dung for fuel because it’s plentiful, economical, easy to co-opt.
    Plants typically their leaves and bark burn but many plants are
    adapted to regrow. As we know Victoria has an extensive bushfire history,One of the most regular wildlife emergencies that occur in Victoria is the impact of bushfires on native wildlife.

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