Livestock Grazing Impacts on Herbage and Shrub Dynamics in a Mediterranean Natural Park

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Abstract

Shrub encroachment can be explained by the abandonment of extensive livestock farming and changes to land use, and it is a common problem in the Mediterranean mountain pastures of Europe, with direct effects on biodiversity and landscape quality. In this paper, the effects of livestock exclusion vs. grazing on the dynamics of shrub and herbaceous vegetation were analyzed in a Spanish natural park located in a dry Mediterranean mountain area over a 5-yr period. Twelve 10 × 10 m exclosures were set up in six representative pasture areas of the park (with two replicates per location). Each year, the shrub number, volume, and biomass were measured in April, and the herbage height, biomass, and quality were measured in April and December (which represent the start and end of the vegetative growth season). A sustained increase of the shrub population and individual biomass was observed throughout the study, which was reflected in total shrub biomass per ha. Growth was greater in nongrazed exclosures (2 563 kg dry matter [DM] · ha-1 · yr-1), but it also happened in the grazed control areas (1 173 kg DM · ha-1 · yr-1), with different patterns depending on the location and shrub species. Herbage biomass did not change when grazing was maintained, but it did increase in places where grazing was excluded (291 kg DM · ha-1 · yr-1), mostly as a consequence of the accumulation of dead material, with a concomitant reduction in herbage quality. It was concluded that at the current stocking rates and management regimes, grazing alone is not enough to prevent the intense dynamics of shrub encroachment, and further reductions in grazing pressure should be avoided.

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