Managing grassland for wildlife: the effects of rotational burning on tick presence and abundance in African savannah habitat

25 September 2017

Goodenough, Anne; Harrell, Alison; Keating, Rachel; Rolfe, Richard; Stubbs, Hannah; MacTavish, Lynne; Hart, Adam

Ticks are obligate blood-feeding ectoparasites that have negative effects on animals through blood loss and vectoring disease. Controlling ticks is a major aspect of wildlife management in many areas, including African savannah where ticks are a long-standing problem. Rotational burning of vegetation is widely thought to reduce ticks but empirical data are lacking. We investigate the effect of block rotational burning on tick populations in a South African wildlife reserve. We measured tick presence/abundance using tick drags in multiple blocks of five different burn ages (areas burned 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years previously). We also assessed herbivore diversity using dung as a proxy. Tick presence was highest in areas burned 2-3 years previously. It was lowest in recently-burned areas (probably due to fire-induced mortality or loss of field-layer refugia) and areas burned ≥ 4 years previously (probably because the lack of palatable grass meant herbivore abundance was lower; this is supported by significantly lower herbivore presence in old burns and significant positive correlation between tick numbers and herbivore presence). Burn age and, to a lesser extent, block, were significantly related to tick presence and abundance at both larval and nymph stages. The model that best explained tick numbers, though, included the interaction between burn age and block due to substantial inter-block variability in mid-burn blocks relative to lower variability in blocks at the start or end of the burn cycle. This suggests that burn age and block-specific conditions together influence tick abundance, with habitat heterogeneity likely being an important modifier of the effect burning has on tick numbers. Although annual burning of large areas would not be feasible while maintaining suitable grazing, we suggest that additional annual burning of potential wildlife (and therefore tick) hotspots, such as around waterholes, could reduce tick populations and improve wildlife management.