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Interactions of grazing history, cattle removal and time since rain drive divergent short-term responses by desert biota.


ABSTRACT: Arid grasslands are used worldwide for grazing by domestic livestock, generating debate about how this pastoral enterprise may influence native desert biota. One approach to resolving this question is to experimentally reduce livestock numbers and measure the effects. However, a key challenge in doing this is that historical grazing impacts are likely to be cumulative and may therefore confound comparisons of the short-term responses of desert biota to changes in stocking levels. Arid areas are also subject to infrequent flooding rainfalls that drive productivity and dramatically alter abundances of flora and fauna. We took advantage of an opportunity to study the recent effects of a property-scale cattle removal on two properties with similarly varied grazing histories in central Australia. Following the removal of cattle in 2006 and before and after a significant rainfall event at the beginning of 2007, we sampled vegetation and small vertebrates on eight occasions until October 2008. Our results revealed significant interactions of time of survey with both grazing history and grazing removal for vascular plants, small mammals and reptiles. The mammals exhibited a three-way interaction of time, grazing history and grazing removal, thus highlighting the importance of careful sampling designs and timing for future monitoring. The strongest response to the cessation of grazing after two years was depressed reproductive output of plants in areas where cattle continued to graze. Our results confirm that neither vegetation nor small vertebrates necessarily respond immediately to the removal of livestock, but that rainfall events and cumulative grazing history are key determinants of floral and faunal performance in grassland landscapes with low and variable rainfall. We suggest that improved assessments could be made of the health of arid grazing environments if long-term monitoring were implemented to track the complex interactions that influence how native biota respond to grazing.

SUBMITTER: Frank AS 

PROVIDER: S-EPMC3713037 | BioStudies | 2013-01-01

REPOSITORIES: biostudies

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