Impacts of heavy grazing on plant species richness: A comparison across rangeland biomes of South Africa
South African Journal of Botany
Kirstenbosch Research Centre, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Private Bag X7, Claremont 7735, South Africa; Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, Matieland 7602, South Africa
The net effect of heavy grazing and land degradation on plant diversity and richness is insufficiently understood for incorporation in national biodiversity assessments. A study was undertaken to determine the effects of heavy grazing primarily on richness of vascular plant species across the arid and semi-arid rangeland biomes of South Africa. Major grazing contrasts were systematically identified for sampling in rangelands of Succulent Karoo, Nama-Karoo, Thicket, Grassland, Kalahari dune savanna and Mopane savanna. The related parameters of species diversity, evenness and turnover were also examined and analysed at the whole site level. The study represents a new site-level comparison of earlier individual studies that also necessitated recalculation and standardization of original data, where appropriate. Impacts of heavy grazing on plant species richness were found to vary from negligible or slightly positive to distinctly negative, depending on site. The sharp reductions in richness may have been associated with special secondary conditions that can occur in arid areas. Species diversity did not track species richness well and was often dominated by species evenness patterns. Moderate to substantial turnover of species occurred, even with negligible change in species richness. Species turnover was largely associated with replacement of species, except on one site where turnover was more evenly split between its replacement and nestedness components. Heavy grazing altered species composition on all study sites, usually with reduced grazing quality and favouring annual plants. Surprisingly few of the replacement species on most of the study areas were alien or exotic. Remarkably, the magnitude of change in species richness across the limited rainfall gradient of the study often greatly exceeded changes associated with the heavy grazing levels at each site. Use of the significant non-linear relationship found between loss of plant canopy cover through grazing and the relative decline in species richness needs further exploration. © 2013 South African Association of Botanists.
assessment method; biodiversity; biomass; biome; canopy; comparative study; grazing; land degradation; nestedness; rangeland; replacement; soil crust; species diversity; species evenness; species richness; standardization; turnover; South Africa