Fir expansion not controlled by moderate densities of large herbivores: a Mediterranean mountain grassland conservation issue

Whilst livestock has maintained grasslands over centuries in south European mountains, current ungulate densities are insufficient to control tree and forest expansion effectively. The present results based on fir population dynamics and radial/height growth raise questions about the sustainable management of new forests that are former mountain grasslands. This empirical case study contributes to debate about methods for long-term management of grasslands in Mediterranean mountains.

Context Forest expansion following the cessation of grazing is a threat to biodiversity in mountain grasslands that are components of Mediterranean cultural landscapes.
Aims We hypothesised that ungulates could mitigate tree recruitment, thus conserving mountain grasslands. We tested the efficiency of grazing and browsing by domestic and wild ungulates (sheep, roe and red deer) at inhibiting silver fir (Abies alba Mill.) encroachment in a conservation area, one of the main browsed trees.
Methods The fir trees’ age structure was analysed by dendrochronology, and the individual growth patterns and scars were recorded in their tree-ring series.
Results Fir density has increased since the 1960s, simultaneously with the increase in ungulate populations. The scar occurrences only appeared during the 1970s. Most scars were observed on seedlings and small saplings. The impacts of ungulates are observed on the radial and height growth of trees, mostly on trees < 100 cm, but it did not however result in controlling the recruitment of fir.
Conclusion The hypothesis that a moderate density of ungulates might inhibit tree encroachment is therefore rejected, even in the case of a highly palatable species such as silver fir. Ungulates, solely, would not be an appropriate policy for grassland conservation in Mediterranean mountains.

Conservation area, Height growth, Radial growth, Age structure, Grazing, Browsing, Ungulates, Herbivory, Tree-ungulate interactions

Chauchard, S., Carcaillet, C. & Guibal, F. Annals of Forest Science (2018) 75: 94.

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Data availability
Data are publicly available in Chauchard S, Carcaillet C, Guibal F (2018) Data from: Fir expansion not controlled by moderate densities of large herbivores: a grassland conservation issue. V1. Portail Data Inra. [Dataset].

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