Conserving living landscapes: investigating the impacts of livestock grazing and assessing rangeland restoration potential in Overberg Renosterveld, South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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Biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in the Earth's history, driven mostly by land use change and degradation. Overberg Renosterveld, some of the most species diverse mediterranean type shrublands, are no exception with about 95% of their original extent lost to agriculture. Historically, large herds of indigenous grazing mammals roamed these landscapes. Today the Overberg's agricultural lands are fragmented by land cover change and divided by fences. In the contemporary landscape animals, largely domestic livestock, and plant resources are closely coupled, and overgrazing of remaining renosterveld fragments a significant threat, with potential to cause irreversible damage. The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (CARA) (Act 43 of 1983) states that farmers must not exceed the grazing capacity of the veld unless it is protected against deterioration and destruction, and that any land that is degraded or denuded must be effectively restored or reclaimed. Despite this legislation, there is little empirical research on the impacts of livestock grazing on renosterveld, as well as on restoration of overgrazed areas. It was the aim of this thesis to contribute to this gap in understanding. The thesis assessed the role of grazing by different livestock types, namely cattle and sheep, on biodiversity, the soil seed bank, and the restoration potential of renosterveld vegetation from resting the veld. The effect of livestock grazing by sheep and cattle on plant species richness and diversity and growth form diversity was assessed using Modified Whittaker plots and presented in Chapter 3. It was hypothesised that livestock grazing by cattle would have less effect on species richness and diversity and growth form diversity than sheep grazing and that both cattle and sheep grazing would lead to a reduction in species richness and diversity in comparison to renosterveld sites with a treatment of no grazing. Thirty sites where either no grazing has taken place or that have been grazed by cattle or sheep were selected with sites being evenly distributed between Eastern, Central and Western Rûens Shale Renosterveld. At each of the thirty sites, vegetation data were collected from a series of nested subplots of ten 1 m2 , two 10 m2 and one 100 m2 subplots nested within a 1 000 m2 plot. One soil sample was also collected from each 1 000 m2 plot to a depth of 10 cm for nutrient analysis. Findings revealed that sites grazed by sheep had significantly lower plant species richness (median richness = 29 species, mean Shannon-Weiner = 3.39) and diversity when compared to sites with a treatment of no grazing (median richness = 49 species, mean Shannon Weiner = 3.83). Sites with a treatment of no grazing had significantly higher richness of geophyte species (mean = 14.7) than sites grazed by cattle (mean = 7.0) and sheep (mean = 7.1) during the study. The results obtained were in line with the hypothesis that livestock grazing by sheep resulted in a reduction in species richness and diversity and vegetation cover in Overberg Renosterveld in comparison to sites where no grazing has taken place. Sites with a treatment of no grazing showed higher species richness and vegetation cover of non-succulent shrubs, annual forbs and perennial forbs than sites grazed by sheep. It was concluded that livestock grazing of Overberg Renosterveld by sheep needs to be done with care. This can be done by adopting a passive adaptive management approach. Here one set of management protocols can be developed and implemented and through science-based monitoring to inform management, these can be adapted as needed based on the key findings. Chapter 4 investigated ecosystem resilience and the restoration potential of Overberg Renosterveld through an exploration of its soil seed bank as a source for potential recovery. A glasshouse germination experiment investigated the effect of livestock grazing by cattle and by sheep in comparison with a grazing treatment of no grazing on the soil seed bank in Overberg Renosterveld, as well as the similarity between the standing vegetation and the soil seed bank. It was hypothesised that cattle and sheep grazing would reduce species richness, species diversity and growth form diversity in the soil seed bank in comparison with sites with a treatment of no grazing. Soil samples were collected from 30 sites that were also used in Chapter 3. The soil was then spread on top of a 6 cm layer of compost in seed trays, and smoke treated to enhance germination. Seedlings were assigned to growth form categories including forbs, geophytes, annuals, graminoids, succulent shrubs and nonsucculent shrubs and then identified to family, genus or species level. The results of the soil seed bank study were correlated with the vegetation results from Chapter 3 to examine the relationship between the standing vegetation and the soil seed bank. A total of 48% of taxa in the standing vegetation had seed present in the germinable seed bank. However, there were no differences in species richness, species diversity or number of individuals between grazing treatments. The results indicated that livestock grazing has a far less significant impact on the composition, species diversity and growth form diversity of the soil seed bank in Overberg Renosterveld than hypothesised. Instead, the results showed that there was a well-developed seed bank comprising mainly indigenous species with a variety of different growth forms including palatable grasses and shrubs. This indicates that Overberg Renosterveld vegetation has high restoration potential. Chapter 5 showed results on the effects of livestock grazing by cattle and sheep over time on plant species richness, diversity and growth form diversity in comparison with sites protected from grazing. Following collection of a baseline dataset, four years of follow up data were collected. A total of 22 fenced plots across Western, Central and Eastern Rûens Shale Renosterveld had a baseline dataset collected prior to being monitored on an annual basis over four years in grazed/ungrazed paired plots. Results on vegetation recovery from the fenced exclosures showed a significant increase in plant cover over time at sites that were not grazed. Mean species richness increased from 20.6 species to 25.4 species at sites with no grazing. Mean vegetation cover increased from 71% at T0 (the baseline time step) to 120% at T4 (the final time step) at the end of the study. Sites grazed by sheep had a decrease in vegetation cover over time each year from T0 to T4 from 75% to 50%. Results from a linear mixed model revealed that species richness between grazing treatments was significantly different at all time steps in the study. However, the significant differences were primarily due to comparisons between grazed sites and sites with a treatment of no grazing. Therefore, livestock grazing by sheep has a significant effect on renosterveld vegetation over time. Findings from this component of the study indicates that Overberg Renosterveld degraded by continuous heavy grazing has significant passive restoration potential by fencing renosterveld patches to facilitate more effective grazing management. Most of the renosterveld of the Overberg has been lost through habitat transformation for agriculture, and the future of that which remains is uncertain. This thesis affirms concerns around the impact of livestock grazing and shows the importance of improved ecological understanding around grazing management. Grazing by sheep was shown to cause greater impacts on renosterveld than other domestic livestock studied and is therefore a threat to renosterveld. These findings warrant closer attention to management practices around sheep grazing. However, the state of renosterveld soil seed banks offer considerable hope. Findings revealed a diverse indigenous seed bank, showing that renosterveld degraded by overgrazing has high restoration potential. Furthermore, fencing renosterveld to exclude livestock improves species richness and diversity over time. These findings highlight the need for caution when grazing renosterveld. However, where the damage has been done, the potential for recovery is high. Harnessing the soil seed bank in combination with excluding livestock grazing by fencing are effective tools in this critically endangered vegetation for achieving restoration and conservation goals.