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Community Ecology
Authors: N.A. Littlewood, S. Greenwood, S.L.O. Quin, R.J. Pakeman, and S.J. Woodin

Alonso, I., S.E. Hartley and M. Thurlow. 2001. Competition between heather and grasses on Scottish moorlands: Interacting effects of nutrient enrichment and grazing regime. J. Veg. Sci. 12: 249

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The acceleration of grassland loss on the global scale has been reported in many studies, which is often attributed to the combination of land use change and increased variability of climatic processes. Extensive steppe national parks serve as an ideal study site for grassland conservation, especially wilderness areas where the natural effects of grazing on wildlife can still be tracked. In our study we aim to investigate the effects of habitat structure, grazing type and intensity as well as climatic variables on species abundance, species richness and abundance of functional groups of ground-breeding bird species in the largest compact alkali grassland area of central Europe. We applied the information theoretic approach estimating the importance of ecological predictors according models of substantial support. The main result of our study shows that ground-breeding bird communities in steppe areas exhibit highly species-specific responses to the species of grazers, grazing intensity, habitat composition and climatic predictors. Across the most supported models, species-specific habitat composition values were the most supported predictors. Our findings show that although the response of ground-breeding birds to vegetation, grazing and climatic predictors is highly species-specific, consistent patterns of responsiveness to grazing and climatic patterns emerge, which calls for long-term studies on the combined effects of climatic variability and management of grazing systems.

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Though the interplay of grazing intensity and the availability of resources is a key driver in grassland composition, very few studies focused on trait changes after abandonment along productivity gradients. Through a comparative approach, we aimed to assess the context-dependent effects of long-term grazing cessation on functional composition and diversity in sub-Mediterranean grasslands. We hypothesized that variability of topography, soil and vegetation structure on a fine scale drives the trait-based dynamics after long-term abandonment, also influencing the patterns of functional diversity. On a calcareous mountain ridge of central Italy, we collected data on species cover and traits, site characteristics, soil depth and vegetation structure in 0.5 m × 0.5 m plots located in extensively grazed pastures and in grasslands abandoned since the early 1970s. We analysed patterns of species and traits in relation to environmental variables and management type, and trends in functional diversity (FD, Rao’s quadratic entropy) along a productivity gradient. We found that grazing cessation reduced the overall FD and that the direction of species and trait response after long-term grazing cessation were affected, on a fine scale, by the soil depth / productivity gradient. In dryer conditions, species and functional responses were less affected by abandonment, and were devoted to resistance to both stress and disturbance. In abandoned pastures we detected a significant decrease in FD with increasing productivity, leading to a shift from functional strategies devoted to grazing avoidance and tolerance to those devoted to competition for light and resource acquisition. This trend was related to the filtering effect of coarse tall grasses, which spread in highly productive conditions. In grazed grasslands, we detected an overall increasing trend of FD with increasing productivity, confirming the key role of extensive grazing in maintaining high levels of FD.

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Similarity between seed bank and aboveground vegetation is frequently studied in order to better understand how community composition is affected by factors such as disturbance and succession. Grassland plant communities are known to be sensitive to shifts in precipitation and increases in temperature associated with climate change, but we do not know if and how these factors interact to affect the similarity between seed bank and aboveground vegetation. Also unknown is how the impact of grazing, the dominant land-use in grasslands, will interact with climatic conditions to affect similarity. We manipulated precipitation and temperature, and cut vegetation (as a proxy for grazing) at a grassland site for three years. Percent cover of aboveground vegetation was estimated in the third year, and compared with persistent seed bank samples taken in the year prior from the same plots. Similarity increased with reduced precipitation, was unresponsive to warming, and decreased with clipping. The aboveground community responded strongly to the treatments, while the seed bank community did less so, suggesting similarity responses were largely driven by changes in aboveground vegetation. Because of the importance of the seed bank in vegetation regeneration, understanding the relationship between seed bank and aboveground vegetation will improve our understanding of plant community dynamics under climate change and varied management (grazing) intensities.

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We studied the floristic composition in the pastures of the Southern Alps (Trento Province, Italy). One hundred and five plots in seven different pasture plant communities were sampled: (1) nitrophilous, (2) montane mesic, (3) subalpine mesic, (4) calcareous montane, (5) calcareous subalpine, (6) acid montane, and (7) acid subalpine pastures. Forward selection and variation partitioning were applied to identify the most important factors controlling the species composition and plant traits in the pastures. Aggregated weighted averages were calculated for each plot using the published values of average height, specific leaf area, and seed mass for each species. Explanatory variables were recorded for each site to reflect climate, soil properties, and grazing pressure. We hypothesised that species composition and functional variation in pastures of the Southern Alps are controlled by three main environmental filters: climate, resource availability, and grazing pressure. We found that variables of climate and soil properties had a major role in explaining the species composition and variations in plant traits, while grazing pressure showed a lower independent effect. Species composition and plant traits depended mainly on temperature, soil fertility, and variables of bedrock type — soil pH. Our results confirm the importance of taking the effects of climate and resource availability into account when describing plant and community functions of grasslands.

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Since the early 20th century Patagonian arid steppes have been subjected to overgrazing that led to the degradation of plant communities. We hypothesized that the interplay among grazing history, plant-plant spatial interactions and species traits affects recovery and assemblage of shrub community after short-term abandonment in north-eastern Patagonian arid steppe (Peninsula Valdés, Argentina). We compared six sites (two in grazed pastures, and four in short-term ungrazed pastures, two of which intensively grazed, while the other two low intensity grazed in the past) with regard to: shrub cover percentage (10 × 10 m plots); shrub patch dimension, species richness, and spatial interactions among shrub species depending on patch dimension (patches sampled along transects); species richness and composition, vertical relations among species, and traits related to avoidance strategies and disturbance (1 × 1 m plots sampled along transects). Our results indicated that recovery processes in abandoned pastures act through the increase in shrub patch size, formation of new patches, change in patch composition and richness, and in within-patch relations among shrub species. No significant differences were found between sites subjected to different past grazing intensities. The increase in shrub cover was due to a significant expansion of the dominant shrub Chuquiraga avellanedae. The mechanism of new patch formation and spread was mainly based on facilitative processes acting between the dwarf shrubs, poorly palatable and disliked by wild herbivores, and young individuals of the dominant species emerging from their canopy. As patch size increased, dwarf shrubs were covered by taller ones or grew at the edge of the patch, indicating a phase of competitive exclusion. Plant-plant spatial interactions involved changes in the composition of plant traits linked to avoidance strategies, which were indicators of grazed conditions and of plots with shrub cover lower than 50%, while less need for defence against animal browsing was highlighted in ungrazed pastures and shrub-dominated plots. As the density of herbivores is recognized as the key factor in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem recovery, management plans devoted to conservation of biodiversity and forage resources should work to recreate grazing conditions close to the wild ones or to impose a short-term period of ecosystem rest that allows the plant community to recover.

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Modern agriculture is one of the main anthropogenic threats to biodiversity. To explore the effects of agricultural intensification we investigated carabids and spiders in two studies; in 2003 in grasslands and two years later in cereal fields in the same region. Both aimed to study the effect of management on arthropod diversity and composition at local and landscape scales. In 2003, we used a paired design for grasslands (extensively vs. intensively grazed). In 2005, a gradient design was applied with a total of seven land-use intensity categories. In both studies, sampling was carried out using funnel traps with the same sampling effort. Linear mixed models showed that high grazing intensity in grasslands had a positive effect on carabid species richness and abundance, but no effect on spiders. Landscape diversity had a positive effect only on carabid abundance. In the case of cereal fields, the management intensity (nitrogen fertiliser kg/ha) had a negative effect on spider richness and no effect on carabids. After variance partitioning, both local and landscape characteristics seem to be important for both cereal and grassland arthropod communities. Based on our results, we think that current and future agri-environmental schemes should be concentrated on cropland extensification. Low intensity croplands could act as a buffer zone around the semi-natural grasslands, at least in this biogeographic region.

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Milchunas, D. G., Sala, O. E. and Lauenroth, W. K. (1988): Ageneralized model of the effects of grazing by large herbivores on grassland community structure. — Amer. Nat. 132 (1): 87–106. Lauenroth W. K

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