Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Cattle foraging habits shape vegetation patterns of alluvial year-round grazing systems


Year-round grazing with robust cattle is increasingly used as a near-natural tool for the restoration of structurally diverse grassland ecosystems in Western and Central Europe. The aim of this study was to evaluate the general success of year-round grazing and to analyze the interplay between emerging vegetation structures, grazing patterns and abiotic environmental conditions. In summer 2010 vegetation composition, aboveground biomass and soil properties were sampled at 44 quadrats of 4 × 4 m2 within two year-round grazed floodplain sites in Northwestern Germany. For plot selection, we predefined structural vegetation types and later statistically determined indicative plant species for each structural type. Our results showed that year-round grazing resulted in the successful creation of eutrophic grassland communities on former agricultural land after 15 years. Soil parameters like phosphorous and potassium concentration and the flooding duration did not or only slightly differ between different structure types. In summer, cattle preferably fed at short-growing patches which were of better digestible biomass than taller patches. Hence, our data clearly demonstrate a positive feedback between grazing intensity and fodder quality leading to a patchy vegetation structure of intensively grazed swards and less frequented areas dominated by high-growing grasses and tall forbs, almost independently from primary differences in soil parameters and other site factors such as flooding duration. The remarkable structural and floristic diversity of year-round grazing systems clearly is a result of these spatially contrasting feeding patterns.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Anderson TM, Dong Y, McNaughton SJ (2006) Nutrient acquisition and physiological responses of dominant Serengeti grasses to variation in soil texture and grazing. J Ecol 94:1164–1175

  2. Bakker JP (1985) The impact of grazing on plant communities, plant populations and soil conditions on salt marshes. Vegetatio 62:391–398

  3. Bakker JP (1989) Nature Management by Grazing and Cutting. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dodrecht

  4. Bakker JP (1998) The impact of grazing on plant communities. In: Wallis de Vries MF, Bakker JP, van Wieren SE (eds) Grazing and conservation management. Kluwer Academic Publisher, Dordrecht, pp 137–252

  5. Bakker JP, de Leeuw J, van Wieren SE (1984) Micro-patterns in grassland vegetation created and sustained by sheep grazing. Vegetatio 55:153–161

  6. Ben-Shahar R, Coe MJ (1992) The relationship between soil factors, grass nutrients and the foraging behaviour of wildebeest and zebra. Oecologia 90:422–428

  7. Bezirksregierung Arnsberg (ed) (2009) Lippeaue. Eine Flusslandschaft im Wandel. http://www.bezreg-arnsberg.nrw.de/themen/n/naturnahe_fluesse/lippeaue_2009.pdf. Accessed 19 Dec 2013

  8. Briemle G, Nitsche S, Nitsche L (2002) Grassland utilization indicator values for vascular plant species. Schrreihe Vegkd 38:203–225

  9. Bunzel-Drüke M, Böhm C, Finck P, Kämmer G, Luick R, Reisinger E, Riecken U, Riedl J, Scharf M, Zimball O (2008) “Wilde Weiden”. Praxisleitfaden für Ganzjahresbeweidung in Naturschutz und Landschaftsentwicklung. Westkämper, Lippetal-Herzfeld

  10. Chesson P (2000) Mechanisms of maintenance of species diversity. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 31:343–366

  11. Cousins S (2009) Landscape history and soil properties affect grassland decline and plant species richness in rural landscapes. Biol Conserv 142:2752–2758

  12. Cousins SAO, Eriksson O (2008) After the hotspots are gone: land use history and grassland plant species diversity in a strongly transformed agricultural landscape. Appl Veg Sci 11:365–374

  13. Critchley CNR, Burke MJW, Stevens DP (2003) Conservation of lowland semi-natural grasslands in the UK: a review of botanical monitoring results from agri-environment schemes. Biol Conserv 115:263–278

  14. Donath TW, Hölzel N, Otte A (2003) The impact of site conditions and seed dispersal on restoration success in alluvial meadows. Appl Veg Sci 6:13–22

  15. Dufrene M, Legendre P (1997) Species assemblages and indicator species: the need for a flexible asymmetrical approach. Ecol Monogr 67:345–366

  16. Ellenberg H, Leuschner C (2010) Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen, 6th edn. UTB, Stuttgart

  17. Enge D (2009) Landschaftspflege mit Wasserbüffeln. Ergebnisse eines Weideversuchs-projekts in Limbach-Oberfrohna. Natschutz Landschplan 41:277–285

  18. Enyedi ZM, Ruprecht E, Deák M (2008) Long-term effects of the abandonment of grazing on steppe-like grasslands. Appl Veg Sci 11:55–62

  19. Frank DA (2008) Ungulate and topographic control of nitrogen: phosphorous stoichiometry in a temperate grassland: soils, plants and mineralitzation rates. Oikos 117:591–601

  20. Geologisches Landesamt Nordrhein-Westfalen (ed) (1985) Bodenkarte von Nordrhein-Westfalen 1:50,0000. Blatt L 4314 Beckum. Krefeld

  21. Geologisches Landesamt Nordrhein-Westfalen (ed) (2004) Geologische Karte von Nordrhein-Westfalen 1:25,0000. Blatt L 4315 Benninghausen. Krefeld

  22. Ginane C, Dumont B, Petit A (2002) Short-term choices of cattle vary with relative quality and accessibility of two hays according to an energy gain maximisation hypothesis. Appl Anim Behav Sci 75:269–279

  23. Grime JP (1973) Competitive exclusion in herbaceous vegetation. Nature 242:344–347

  24. Grime JP (2007) Comparative plant ecology, 2nd edn. Castlepoint Press, Dalbeattie

  25. Güsewell S (2004) N:P ratios in terrestrial plants: variation and functional significance. New Phytol 164:243–266

  26. Hautier Y, Niklaus PA, Hector A (2009) Competition for light causes plant biodiversity loss after eutrophication. Science 324:636–638

  27. Hölzel N, Otte A (2003) Restoration of a species-rich flood meadow by topsoil removal and diaspore transfer with plant material. Appl Veg Sci 6:131–140

  28. Klaus VH, Sintermann J, Kleinebecker T, Hölzel N (2011) Sedimentation-induced eutrophication in large river floodplains: an obstacle to restoration? Biol Conserv 144:451–458

  29. Kleinebecker T, Schmidt SR, Fritz C, Smolders AJP, Hölzel N (2009) Prediction of delta-13C and delta-15N in plant tissues with near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy. New Phytol 184:732–739

  30. Kleinebecker T, Weber H, Hölzel N (2011) Effects of grazing on seasonal variation of aboveground biomass quality in calcareous grasslands. Plant Ecol 212:1563–1576

  31. Lepš J (1999) Nutrient status, disturbance and competition: an experimental test of relationships in a wet meadow copy. J Veg Sci 10:219–230

  32. Mann S, Tischew S (2010) Role of megaherbivores in restoration of species-rich grassland on former arable land in floodplains. Waldökol Landschf Natschutz 10:7–15

  33. McCune B, Mefford MJ (2005) PC-ORD, Multivariate analysis of ecological data, Version 5 for Windows edition. MjM Software Design, Gleneden Beach, Oregon USA

  34. McIntyre S, Lavorel S, Tremont R (1995) Plant life-history attributes: their relationship to disturbance response in herbaceous vegetation. J Ecol 83:1–44

  35. McNaughton SJ (1979) Grazing as an optimizing process: Grass-ungulate relationships in the Serengeti. Am Nat 113:691–703

  36. McNaughton SJ (1984) Grazing lawns: animals in herds, plant form and coevolution. Am Nat 124:863–886

  37. McNaughton SJ, Banyikwa FF, McNaughton MM (1997) Promotion of the cycling of diet-enhancing nutrients by African grazers. Science 278:1798–1800

  38. Mouissie AM, Apol MEF, Heil GW, van Diggelen R (2008) Creation and preservation of vegetation patterns by grazing. Ecol Model 218:60–72

  39. Münzbergová M, Herben T (2005) Seed, dispersal, microsite, habitat and recruitment limitation: identification of terms and concepts in studies of limitation. Oecologia 145:1–8

  40. Parolo G, Abeli T, Gusmeroli F, Rossi G (2011) Large-scale heterogeneous cattle grazing affects plant diversity and forage value of Alpine species-rich Nardus pastures. Grass Forage Sci 66(4):541–550

  41. Pollock MM, Naiman RJ, Hanley TA (1998) Plant species richness in riparian wetlands: a of biodiversity theory. Ecology 79:94–105

  42. Putfarken D, Dengler J, Lehmann S, Härdtle W (2008) Site use of grazing cattle and sheep in a large-scale pasture landscape: a GPS/GIS assessment. Appl Anim Behav Sci 111:54–67

  43. Pykälä J (2000) Mitigating human effects on European biodiversity through traditional animal husbandry. Conserv Biol 14:705–712

  44. Pyke GH (1984) Optimal foraging theory: a critical review. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 15:523–575

  45. Rook AJ, Dumont B, Isselstein J, Osoro K, Wallis de Vries MF, Parente G, Mills J (2004) Matching type of livestock to desired biodiversity outcomes in pastures: a review. Biol Conserv 119:137–150

  46. Schaffers AP (2002) Soil, biomass, and management of semi-natural vegetation. Part I. Interrelationships. Plant Ecol 158:229–246

  47. Schaich H, Szabó I, Kaphegyi TAM (2009) Grazing with Galloway cattle for floodplain restoration in the Syr Valley, Luxembourg. J Nat Conserv 18:268–277

  48. Svenning JC (2002) A review of natural vegetation openness in north-western Europe. Biol Conserv 104:133–148

  49. Sýkora KV, Stuiver HJ, de Ronde I, de Nijs LJ (2009) Fourteen years of restoration and extensive year round grazing with free foraging horses and cattle and its effect particularly on dry species rich riverine levee grasslands. Phytocoenologia 39:265–286

  50. Török P, Vida E, Deák B, Lengyel Sz, Tóthmérész B (2011) Grassland restoration on former croplands in Europe: an assessment of applicability of techniques and costs. Biodivers Conserv 20:2311–2332

  51. Vaieretti MV, Cingolani AM, Pérez Harguindeguy N, Gurvich DE, Cabido M (2010) Does decomposition of standard materials differ among grassland patches maintained by livestock? Aust Ecol 35:935–943

  52. Van den Bos J, Bakker JP (1990) The development of vegetation patterns by cattle grazing at low stocking density in the Netherlands. Biol Conserv 51:263–272

  53. Van Soest PJ (1994) Nutritional ecology of the ruminant, 2nd edn. Cornell University Press, New York

  54. Veblen KE (2012) Savanna glade hotspots: plant community development and synergy with large herbivores. J Arid Environ 78:119–127

  55. Veen P, Jefferson R, de Smidt J, van der Straaten J (2009) Grasslands in Europe of high nature value. KNNV Publishing, Zeist

  56. Vera FWM (2000) Grazing ecology and forest history. CABI Publishing, Wallingford

  57. Von Oheimb G, Eischeid I, Finck P, Grell H, Härdtle W, Mierwald U, Riecken U, Sandkühler J (2006) Halboffene Weidelandschaft Höltigbaum. Perspektiven für den Erhalt und die naturverträgliche Nutzung von Offenlandlebensräumen [Half-open pasture landscape Höltigbaum. Perspectives for the conservation and management of open habitats]. Naturschutz und Biologische Vielfalt 36

  58. Wallis de Vries MF, Daleboudt C (1994) Foraging strategy of cattle in patchy grassland. Oecologia 100:98–106

  59. Wallis de Vries MF, Bakker JP, van Wieren SE (1998) Grazing and conservation management. Kluwer Academic Publisher, Dordrecht

  60. Wallis de Vries MF, Poschlod P, Willems JH (2002) Challenges for the conservation of calcareous grasslands in northwestern Europe: integrating the requirements of flora and fauna. Biol Conserv 104:265–273

  61. Wesche K, Krause B, Culmsee H, Leuschner C (2012) Fifty years of change in Central European grassland vegetation: large losses in species richness and animal-pollinated plants. Biol Conserv 150:76–85

  62. Wilson JB (2011) The twelve theories of co-existance in plant communities. J Veg Sci 22:184–195

  63. Wisskirchen R, Haeupler H (1998) Standardliste der Farn- und Blütenpflanzen Deutschlands. Ulmer, Stuttgart

Download references


The authors are grateful to Luise Hauswirth and Margret Bunzel-Drüke (both ABU Soest e.V.) for the possibility to carry out this research, and for help in setting up the experiment. Furthermore, the authors thank the Environmental Department of the District Government of Arnsberg and the ABU Soest e.V. for the provision of background data about the study area. Two anonymous reviewers provided very useful comments that significantly improved the quality of this manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Kristin Gilhaus.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gilhaus, K., Stelzner, F. & Hölzel, N. Cattle foraging habits shape vegetation patterns of alluvial year-round grazing systems. Plant Ecol 215, 169–179 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-013-0287-6

Download citation


  • Floodplain restoration
  • Fodder quality
  • Grassland restoration
  • Nature development projects
  • Plant diversity
  • Vegetation structures