Listopad, C.M.C.S., Köbel, M., Príncipe, A., Gonçalves, P. & Branquinho, C. (2018) The effect of grazing exclusion over time on structure, biodiversity, and regeneration of high nature value farmland ecosystems in Europe.Science of the Total Environment, 610-611, 926-936. DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.08.018 (IF2017 4,610; Q1 Environmental Sciences)
Climate change and increasing socio-economic pressure is placing many ecosystems of high ecological and economic value at risk. This is particularly urgent in dryland ecosystems, such as the montado, a multifunctional savannah-like system heavily modeled by grazing. There is still an ongoing debate about the trade-offs between livestock grazing and the potential for ecosystem regeneration. While it is consensual that overgrazing hinders the development of the shrubs and trees in this system, the effects of undergrazing or grazing exclusion are unclear. This study provides the unique opportunity to study the impact of grazing on compositional and structural biodiversity by examining the ecological chronosequence in a long-term ecological research site, located in Portugal, where grazing exclusion was controlled for over 15 years. As the threat of intensification persists, even in areas where climate shifts are evident, there is a critical need to understand if and how the montado might recover by removing grazing pressure.
We evaluate succession on structural and compositional diversity after grazing pressure is removed from the landscape at 5, 10, and 15 years post-cattle exclusion and contrast it with currently grazed plots. A LiDAR-derived structural diversity index (LHDI), a surrogate of ecosystem structure and function first developed for the pine-grassland woodland systems, is used to quantify the impact of grazing exclusion on structure and natural regeneration. The distribution of the vegetation, particularly those of the herbaceous and shrub strata (> 10 ≤ 150 cm), presents statistically significant changes. The LHDI closely mimics the compositional biodiversity of the shrubs, with an increase in diversity with increased years without grazing. Under present climate conditions, both shrub regeneration and the establishment of tree saplings were strongly promoted by grazing exclusion, which has important management implications for the long-term sustainability of montado systems.