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Prescribed Fire Science Research and Management at Head of the Plains, Nantucket Island, MA

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Title: Prescribed Fire Science Research and Management at Head of the Plains, Nantucket Island, MA (2016)

Author: Karen Beattie, Nantucket Conservation Foundation

Summary: 1) In 2005, Science and Stewardship Department staff initiated a comprehensive research project aimed at documenting the effectiveness of prescribed fire in maintaining globally rare sandplain grasslands and heathlands at Head of the Plains. Prescribed fire is a key management tool for these early successional habitats, although the effectiveness of prescribed fire at maintaining ecological function by reducing encroachment by woody species had not been effectively examined. Efforts to restore or create sandplain grassland and coastal heathland communities from shrub dominated areas have seen limited success, placing high conservation priority on preventing existing grasslands and heathlands from succeeding to woody-dominated habitats. This research project compared the effectiveness of dormant season (spring and fall) and growing season (late summer) prescribed fire as a tool for maintaining existing sandplain grassland communities and reducing the cover of woody species in coastal heathland habitat adjacent to existing grasslands. 2) In conjunction with the vegetation community research project described above, the impacts of prescribed fire on key rare plant species were monitored either within established monitoring plots (for more locally-abundant species) or across the property (for less locally-abundant species). Analysis of the data from this long term project will provide a better understanding of the direct effects of prescribed fire on each species as well as the long term effects on overall population dynamics. 3) Nantucket shadbush is a regionally-rare low-growing, deciduous, clonal shrub. This species was generally known to respond well to periodic disturbances such as brush-cutting or prescribed fire, which reduces the height of competing vegetation. NCF’s Science and Stewardship Department examined the long-term effects of fire management on this species at Head of the Plains. Similar research was also conducted on the effects of brushcutting on this species at a different site (the Foundation’s Trots Hills property, approximately one mile northeast of Head of the Plains). In 2011, the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program de-listed Nantucket shadbush. However, it was still listed a “Species of Special Concern” when this prescribed fire research and management project was initiated.


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