Oh how spectacularly the mountain has transformed! From that initial barren moonscape after the fire was extinguished, we now pass through one metre tall vegetation in the wetter parts of the mountain which is densely covered in vibrant greens. The fynbos recovery has been wonderful to watch month on month and the spring season was, as expected, an absolute array of colour!
Each month I revisited the Twelve Apostles range of Table Mountain to observe the fynbos recovery as well as to pay attention to signs of wildlife. This exercise became a personal project in order to share any findings, as well as to further my own knowledge. There were never going to be any significant findings as we are well aware of the essential role that fire plays in the fynbos biome, however this was a look (in a very simplistic manner…read: unscientific!) at the site specific observations in an area that hadn’t had fire in many decades.
At the time of the Twelve Apostles fire, Cape Town, and the Western Cape province, was in the midst of a period of lower than average rainfall (drought). We had had two years of low winter rainfall, and an extended dry summer period through the transition seasons. Albeit started through human negligence along Victoria Drive, the preceding drier conditions resulted in our fire season starting early (and ending late) with a Table Mountain fire occurring the following May…in mid autumn.
Here are some of my observations on a fynbos fire…
A patchy fire – not everything burns
There are always pockets of surviving vegetation on rocky peaks, ledges or due to presence of footpaths and jeep tracks…with the slope, wind direction, fire direction and general weather conditions playing a massive role too. Fire burns rapidly up slope, in strong winds, across open mountainside and in mature fynbos vegetation (which has high flammability). Rock is a fire repellent, so when reaching the foot of a cliff, or rocky outcrop, the fire pushes along essentially rounding the rock or shifting direction with the potential to burn out in places. This is why you’ll find unburnt terraces on sheer ledges or a rocky peak that was left unscathed. Often in these areas vegetation has survived more than just this latest burn, and you’ll come across old gnarly shrubs covered in lichens, or even stunted indigenous trees in between the rocky environment.
Afromontane Forest – survives fire
Following on from just how rock acts like a barrier, so does our mature Afromontane forest. This indigenous forest develops on cool, shaded and wet slopes of the mountains across Africa, typically in deep gorges where streams flow. A lack of air movement, wetter environment, steep and rocky topography and general lack of vegetation flammability all play a role in its adaptation to repel fire. Take a look at the ravines on the eastern slopes of the Twelve Apostles above Orange Kloof…which clearly show how the fire hits the fringes, burning vulnerable small or isolated trees, but abating abruptly.
Aspect – faster regeneration on the wet & shaded slopes
The cooler, wetter areas of the mountain regenerate at a much faster rate as opposed the the dry west and north facing slopes. On the flats, valleys, gorges and south-facing slopes you’ll notice how much denser the vegetation cover is, how in the early stages of recovery you have rapid growth. This is best seen above the Orange Kloof valley on the east-facing area of the Twelve Apostles, on the Apostles Spine in the vicinity of Grootkop (top of Intake Ravine, southern slopes of Grootkop and the broad flats between Judas Peak and Separation Buttress).
In the southern hemisphere our north facing mountain slopes receive direct sunlight year-round, and our west facing slopes bake in afternoon sun (receiving less precipitation compared to east and south facing slopes too). Of course the aspect plays a large role in which species will grow in each environment (and to what degree), with the harsher slopes seeing sparser and shorter vegetation cover typically. To best see the slow recovery we look across the low granitic slopes all the way between Llandudno and Bakoven, the sheer west-facing slopes in the Pimple Traverse vicinity as well as severely exposed and steep slopes in Oudekraal Ravine which are north-west facing.
Pioneers – maturing rapidly after a burn
Pioneer species come up quickly after a fire and flower profusely which not only provides food for birds and insects, but also ends up resulting in large seed production. These species mature rapidly and cover exposed soil, helping to prevent erosion, and will be dominant in the early years after a burn. These pioneers will eventually have less of a presence…until the next burn!
Tree Proteas – mechanisms to survive in a fire prone region
Fire surviving tree proteas, namely Mimetes fimbriifolious, Leucospermum conocarpodendron, Leucadendron argenteum and Protea nitida can be seen to have largely survived this particular fire. They all have thick, cork-like bark which can withstand low intensity fynbos fires and as such continue to flower in their normal season providing food for birds, mammals and insects alike while other re-seeding protea species slowly mature in the early years after a burn.
Geophytes & re-sprouters – the first signs of new life
A wildfire brings out waves of intense colour, and largely this is centered around geophytes which do not die in fire as they’re safely below the earths surface. We know that apart from rocky outcrops, isolated pockets of unburnt fynbos and indigenous forest, there are only tree proteas which dot the mountainsides. The fire returns nutrients to the poor soils and opens up space, allowing bulbs take advantage of the sudden available sunlight. Species such as Cyrtanthus ventricosus bloom immediately after fire – the only time this member of the Amaryllis family flowers. Re-sprouters coppice from the base, with green foliage visible within a month or so in some species (think of Protea cynaroides), re-seeders germinate en masse and slowly thin out through competition.
Lack of Erica’s – bar one, the Fire Heath
With exception of the stunningly beautiful Erica cerinthoides, aptly named the Fire Heath, there is a distinct lack of presence within the Erica family in the immediate year post-fire. The Fire Heath is the first Erica to bloom just a few months after a fire as it re-sprouts from a woody root stock, whereas the bulk of Erica species are re-seeders, germinating after a fire and thus taking time to mature and thus flower. This will change soon and we should get a good presence of Erica species in the coming years.
Wildlife – some perish, others take advantage
Undoubtedly animals fall victim to wildfires. And this particular burn in early-spring potentially had a bigger impact than a late-summer fire. There would have been many vulnerable young life in the forms of unfledged chicks in nests, new born antelope and caracal kittens which may have fallen victim among numerous others. Wildlife perseveres and manages to find protected shelter or flee a wildfire – they can cope with these environmental stresses and disasters and have been doing so for thousands of years.
The biggest impact is fire interval: too regular a fire can be detrimental to animal populations (as well as flora). Fynbos fires ideally occur in at least 12 year old vegetation…a 12-25 year bracket is healthy. With regard to this particular fire it was long overdue and would have had very little negative impact on wildlife populations as fire has not occurred here in decades. Herbivores, and omnivores, take advantage of recently burnt areas where they have nutrient rich young vegetation to browse, graze and forage. From Cape Grysbok to Klipspringers, Chacma Baboons (not with this particular fire) to Porcupines, they all take advantage post-fire. Ravens move in and look for signs of life such as tortoises, Rock Kestrels scan the scorched earth looking for any movement of rodent or reptile, and caracals move in to hunt anything with a pulse.
Through the year I regularly encountered Klipspringers, saw evidence of porcupine, caracal, mongoose, dassie and lizards.
Erosion – depletion of the seed bank & the infamous Himalayan Tahr
Significantly heavy rains soon after fire, before pioneer establishment, can result in landslips and major soil erosion which essentially depletes the seed bank and negatively impacts on biodiversity. On Table Mountain a faunal impact is worth considering: the Himalayan Tahr. Roaming the steep cliff faces and terraces of the upper sandstone levels exists a population of exotic ungulates. They, just like indigenous grazers and browsers, move into recently burnt areas to feed on all the new growth and importantly where there are herds the effect can be significant, resulting in exposed soils to potentially wash away with seed bank destruction. An individual, much like thinking of a lone pine tree, has little impact on the environment. The concern is when population numbers are high there is increased risk of erosion and risk of endemic floral species losses. A note worth remembering is that synchronised with the tahrs escaping onto Table Mountain was the last Cape leopard sighting near Hout Bay in the 1930’s and as such there is no predator to the tahrs here on Table Mountain.
Head onto the Twelve Apostles to admire the young Fynbos!
To book a guided hike across the 12 Apostles, taking a closer look at this regenerating region, contact Justin Hawthorne via firstname.lastname@example.org
The best time to be hiking here is between August – December, so get in touch to start planning now!
*This blog post is based on personal observations.
More info on the Twelve Apostles fire
In mid-October 2017 the Twelve Apostles range of Table Mountain burnt over the course of 5 days in dense alien vegetation on the privately owned lower slopes and in old stands of fynbos within the Table Mountain National Park. It was a somewhat unusual fire in that it occurred in spring, before the typical Cape fire season. No human life was lost, and no notable damage to infrastructure was suffered. At the end of the day what we know as the #12ApostlesFire was a good ecological burn. I have been monitoring the fynbos regeneration and wildlife activity within the fire affected region and regularly visit the Twelve Apostles to observe changes to the landscape.
The Slopes Of Table Mountain Burn can be viewed HERE
The Night Scene Above Hout Bay can be viewed HERE
The Burnt Western Slopes can be viewed HERE
The Fire And Forest Divide can be viewed HERE
1 Month Update can be viewed HERE
2 Month Update can be viewed HERE
3 Month Update can be viewed HERE
4 Month Update can be viewed HERE
5 Month Update can be viewed HERE
6 and 7 Month Update can be viewed HERE
8 Month Update can be viewed HERE
9 Month Update can be viewed HERE
10 Month Update can be viewed HERE
11 Month Update can be viewed HERE
12 Month Update can be viewed HERE