, Volume 138, Issue 1, pp 91–101 | Cite as

Impact of herbivores on nitrogen cycling: contrasting effects of small and large species

  • E. S. Bakker
  • H. Olff
  • M. Boekhoff
  • J. M. Gleichman
  • F. Berendse
Ecosystem Ecology


Herbivores are reported to slow down as well as enhance nutrient cycling in grasslands. These conflicting results may be explained by differences in herbivore type. In this study we focus on herbivore body size as a factor that causes differences in herbivore effects on N cycling. We used an exclosure set-up in a floodplain grassland grazed by cattle, rabbits and common voles, where we subsequently excluded cattle and rabbits. Exclusion of cattle lead to an increase in vole numbers and a 1.5-fold increase in net annual N mineralization at similar herbivore densities (corrected to metabolic weight). Timing and height of the mineralization peak in spring was the same in all treatments, but mineralization in the vole-grazed treatment showed a peak in autumn, when mineralization had already declined under cattle grazing. This mineralization peak in autumn coincides with a peak in vole density and high levels of N input through vole faeces at a fine-scale distribution, whereas under cattle grazing only a few patches receive all N and most experience net nutrient removal. The other parameters that we measured, which include potential N mineralization rates measured under standardized laboratory conditions and soil parameters, plant biomass and plant nutrient content measured in the field, were the same for all three grazing treatments and could therefore not cause the observed difference. When cows were excluded, more litter accumulated in the vegetation. The formation of this litter layer may have added to the higher mineralization rates under vole grazing, through enhanced nutrient return through litter or through modification of microclimate. We conclude that different-sized herbivores have different effects on N cycling within the same habitat. Exclusion of large herbivores resulted in increased N annual mineralization under small herbivore grazing.


Grassland Grazing Mineralization Nutrient Plant-animal interactions 



We are grateful to Wouter van Steenis and Wendy Schuurman for their help during biomass harvests. Ernst Adam, Hajo Molegraaf, Wouter van Steenis, Julia Stahl and Chris Bakker helped with vole trapping. We thank the Staatsbosbeheer for permission to work on Junner Koeland. Jan van Walsem is acknowledged for his help with the laboratory analyses. We thank John Pastor and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. This study was performed with a grant from NWO-ALW (no. 805–35–391).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. S. Bakker
    • 1
    • 4
  • H. Olff
    • 2
    • 3
  • M. Boekhoff
    • 1
  • J. M. Gleichman
    • 1
  • F. Berendse
    • 1
  1. 1.Nature Conservation and Plant Ecology GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Tropical Nature Conservation and Vertebrate Ecology GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Community and Conservation Ecology Group, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary StudiesUniversity of GroningenHarenThe Netherlands
  4. 4.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of NebraskaLincolnUSA

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