Year-round cattle and horse grazing supports the restoration of abandoned, dry sandy grassland and heathland communities by supressing Calamagrostis epigejos and enhancing species richness

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The spread of competitive grasses, changes in species composition and vegetation structure are direct consequences of grassland and heathland abandonment. As an alternative to more costly management measures such as traditional pastoralism, year-round low-intensity grazing with large herbivores is increasingly used to restore and maintain semi-open habitats. However, the suitability of this grazing regime has not yet been investigated for long-abandoned, highly degraded but nutrient-poor sandy grassland and heathland communities. In particular, it is unclear if year-round grazing is suitable for preventing the further spread of highly competitive grasses such as Calamagrostis epigejos while simultaneously maintaining or improving characteristic species richness and vegetation structure. Hence, we conducted a comprehensive field study on two spatial scales (plot-level: 25 m2, macroplot-level: 1 ha) to analyse the impacts of year-round low-intensity cattle and horse grazing on the development of the highly competitive grass Calamagrostis epigejos, as well as the vegetation structure and plant species richness of long-abandoned but nutrient-poor dry sandy grassland and heathland communities, their mosaics and Calamagrostis stands within an 800 ha heathland between 2008 and 2015. Finally, we assessed the local conservation status of the habitat types after seven years of grazing in comparison to long-abandoned sites. Grazing successfully reduced the coverage of Calamagrostis epigejos, whereby Calamagrostis stands developed towards species-rich sandy grasslands after seven years of grazing. In addition, the quality of the vegetation structure was improved by enhancing the proportion of bare soil, while litter and grass cover, litter thickness and height of the field layer as well as the coverage of ruderal indicators were significantly reduced on grazed sites in comparison to ungrazed sites in 2015. Moreover, we found an overall positive grazing effect on species richness: Total species number, number of target species as well as subordinated target species significantly increased within the vegetation types over time. Thus, year-round low-intensity cattle and horse grazing is a suitable management tool for restoring, maintaining and even improving long-abandoned, nutrient-poor sandy grassland and heathland communities, and thus to enhance the local conservation status of the habitat types. However, if there is a high initial cover of woody species (e.g. shrubs, tree rejuvenation), then an extensive shrub and tree clearance will be necessary, with manual shrub cutting being crucial to reduce the heavy regrowth of the woody species. In addition, a one-time mowing should be implemented in highly degraded heaths to facilitate the vegetative rejuvenation of degenerate stands of Calluna vulgaris, thus improving its attractiveness for the grazing animals.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal for Nature Conservation
Pages (from-to)120-130
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 01.12.2017

    Research areas

  • Calamagrostis epigejos, Large and small-scale surveys, Low-intensity grazing, Species richness, Vegetation structure
  • Sustainability Science