Interactions of grazing and rainfall on vegetation at Grootfontein in the eastern Karoo
Rainfall and grazing are primary drivers of vegetation composition in the Nama-Karoo. Increased rainfall increases grassiness, to where Nama-Karoo transitions to grassland. Severe grazing treatments (e.g. continuous or summeronly) increase abundance of grazing-tolerant dwarf shrubs and annual grasses, and decrease perennial grasses. Grootfontein, which is ecotonal between the Nama-Karoo and Grassland Biomes, houses long-term grazing trials. The area has experienced higher-than-average rainfall in recent decades. Plant basal cover data from the 1960s and 2010s allow several hypotheses to be addressed: (1) historical severe grazing (until 1985) will limit subsequent grassiness (grazing legacy effect); (2) severe grazing will preclude increases in grassiness, independent of rainfall (herbivore trap effect); and (3) historically leniently-grazed sites will transition to grassland with increased rainfall (biome shift effect). Rainfall was lower from 1957–1966 (350 mm) than from 2003–2012 (490 mm). The grazing legacy effect was supported based on the abundance of Aristida diffusa, despite all sites becoming much grassier. The herbivore trap effect was not supported. The biome shift effect was supported in that shifts to grassland sometimes occurred. Results suggest that increasing rainfall has prompted a shift to much increased grassiness and decreased abundance of dwarf shrubs, and that grazing had a smaller secondary effect.
Keywords: biome shift, grassy dwarf shrubland, grazing legacy, herbivore trap, Nama-Karoo