Plant and Soil

, Volume 265, Issue 1–2, pp 153–163

Transformation of thicket to savanna reduces soil quality in the Eastern Cape, South Africa


DOI: 10.1007/s11104-005-0534-2

Cite this article as:
Mills, A. & Fey, M. Plant Soil (2004) 265: 153. doi:10.1007/s11104-005-0534-2


Xeric succulent thicket in the Eastern Cape, South Africa has been used for farming goats since the early 1900s. This habitat is characterised by a dense cover of the succulent bush Portulacaria afra and by a warm, semi-arid climate with evenly distributed annual rainfall of 250–400 mm. Heavy browsing by goats results in the loss of P. afra and transforms the thicket to an open savanna dominated by annual grasses. Eight fence-line comparisons between thicket and savanna were used to investigate differences in soil quality associated with the vegetation change. Composite soil samples were taken to a depth of 10 cm from 1 ha plots on either side of the fence-line. Associated with the change from thicket to savanna, a significant decrease (paired t-test, P < 0.05) was found in total C (respective means of 5.6 vs. 3.0%), total N (0.33 vs. 0.24%), labile C (2.8 vs. 1.5%), CO2 flux (1.9 vs. 0.5 µmol m−2 s−1), soil respiration in the laboratory (144 vs. 79 ng C kg−1 s−1), (NH4)OAc-extractable Mg (55 vs. 28 mmolc kg−1), and laboratory infiltration rate (51 vs. 19 mm h−1). In the same direction there was a similarly significant increase in modulus of rupture (16 vs. 34 kPa), water-soluble Ca (2.3 vs. 3.4 mmolc kg−1) and pH (6.7 vs. 7.7). The soil C content of 5.6% in thicket is surprisingly high in this warm, semi-arid climate and suggests that the dense P. afra bush strongly regulates soil organic matter through microclimate, erosion control, litter quantity and perhaps chemistry. Savanna soils had a greater tendency to crust (as evident in a lower rate of laboratory infiltration and greater modulus of rupture) than thicket soils. This was attributed to their lower organic matter content, which probably reduced aggregate stability. Savannas are likely to be more prone to runoff and erosion not only because of sparser vegetation but also because of a decline in soil quality.

Key words

soil crusting soil organic matter soil quality succession thicket 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Soil ScienceUniversity of StellenboschMatielandSouth Africa
  2. 2.National Botanical InstituteClaremontSouth Africa

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