Effects of browsing in relation to vegetation cover on common yew (Taxus baccata L.) recruitment in Mediterranean environments

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Common yew (Taxus baccata L.) stands are recognized as prioritary habitats for biodiversity conservation within the European Union. The effects of browsing on the regeneration capacity and spatial dispersal of T. baccata recruits at the European southern limit of the species in the Mediterranean Basin have been herein studied. The efficacy of T. baccata recruitment has been evaluated at six localities in the Northern Sardinia mountains, which have similar altitude, climate, soil, and vegetation but have different types of uses (three were grazed by livestock and three were not). At each site, five habitats have been identified for T. baccata seed dispersal: reproductive female T. baccata canopy, reproductive female Ilex aquifolium canopy, non-fleshy-fruited tree canopy, fleshy-fruited shrubs, and open areas. The density of seedlings was found to be greater under fleshy-fruited trees (reproductive female T. baccata and I. aquifolium) than under shrubs, whereas the sapling density was higher in shrubby habitats, especially at grazed sites due to the mechanical protection afforded by the spiny shrubs against herbivores. Land use (LU) has been found to be the most important factor in determining the spatial distribution of seedlings and saplings in relation to forest habitats. Although browsers had an ephemeral but positive effect on seed germination through their trampling and the resultant scarification, this process eventually became ineffective as was shown by the occurrence of the lowest density of saplings in those habitats where the density of seedlings was the highest. The ultimate and most important effect of browsing was the sharp decrease in the density of saplings, and their almost complete extinction, in non-shrubby habitats. This study highlights the result that, in Mediterranean ecosystems, browsing constitutes the main negative factor on T. baccata seedling-sapling transition and furthermore confirms the necessity to preserve shrubby patches in the vicinity of reproductive female T. baccata and I. aquifolium to permit the regeneration of T. baccata in the presence of livestock. Moreover, at ungrazed sites, T. baccata is able to colonize non-shrubby shady habitats. The application of different management strategies to ungrazed and grazed sites should therefore be the main direction in the management and preservation of T. baccata stands in the Mediterranean region.

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