Background: Dramatic reductions in early-spring Calluna vulgaris moisture content have been linked to extreme fire hazard and plant die-back.
Aims: To investigate spatial and temporal variation in the fuel moisture content of Calluna vulgaris.
Methods: Calluna vulgaris plants were sampled in different sites and seasons to examine vertical profiles in moisture content. Live moisture content was monitored throughout autumn 2003 and spring 2004. Changes were compared to trends in temperature, soil resistance and rainfall. The effect of exposure was examined by comparing shoot moisture content in sheltered and exposed locations.
Results: Significant spatial and temporal variation in moisture content was observed. In spring rapid fluctuations in moisture coincided with periods of dry weather, low temperatures and frozen ground. Shoots from exposed locations had significantly lower moisture content when the ground was frozen.
Conclusions: Significant declines in the live fuel moisture content of Calluna vulgaris are associated with physiological drought caused by cold, clear conditions and frozen ground. Over-winter damage to leaf cuticles reduces the ability of the plant to regulate water loss. Changes in moisture content can be rapid, and managers should be aware of the potential for extreme fire behaviour.