Optimizing Carbon Storage Within a Spatially Heterogeneous Upland Grassland Through Sheep Grazing Management

Abstract

Livestock grazing is known to influence carbon (C) storage in vegetation and soil. Yet, for grazing management to be used to optimize C storage, large scale investigations that take into account the typically heterogeneous distribution of grazers and C across the landscape are required. In a landscape-scale grazing experiment in the Scottish uplands, we quantified C stored in swards dominated by the widespread tussock-forming grass species Molinia caerulea. The impact of three sheep stocking treatments (‘commercial’ 2.7 ewes ha−1 y−1, ‘low’ 0.9 ewes ha−1 y−1 and no livestock) on plant C stocks was determined at three spatial scales; tussock, sward and landscape, and these data were used to predict long-term changes in soil organic carbon (SOC). We found that tussocks were particularly dense C stores (that is, high C mass per unit area) and that grazing reduced their abundance and thus influenced C stocks held in M. caerulea swards across the landscape; C stocks were 3.83, 5.01 and 6.85 Mg C ha−1 under commercial sheep grazing, low sheep grazing and no grazing, respectively. Measured vegetation C in the three grazing treatments provided annual C inputs to RothC, an organic matter turnover model, to predict changes in SOC over 100 years. RothC predicted SOC to decline under commercial sheep stocking and increase under low sheep grazing and no grazing. Our findings suggest that no sheep and low-intensity sheep grazing are better upland management practices for enhancing plant and soil C sequestration than commercial sheep grazing. This is evaluated in the context of other upland management objectives.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the Woodland Trust for maintenance of and access to the Glen Finglas grazing experiment, Rob Brooker, Debbie Fielding, Gina Prior, Sarah McCormack, Rachel Marshall and Chloe Denerley for their help in the field and Jo Smith for her input and direction in using RothC. This work contributed to the GHG-EU project. We thank Andrew Tanentzap and other anonymous reviewers for providing helpful comments that improved the manuscript. This research was part of the Glen Finglas project (formerly Grazing and Upland Birds (GRUB) funded by the Scottish government (RERAD)). SWS was funded by a BBSRC studentship.

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Correspondence to Stuart W. Smith.

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SWS conceived of or designed study, performed research, analysed data, contributed new methods or models, wrote paper. CV conceived of or designed study, performed research, wrote paper. AH contributed new methods or models and wrote paper. DJ conceived of or designed study and wrote paper. RJP conceived of or designed study and wrote paper. RVDW conceived of or designed study and wrote paper. SJW conceived of or designed study and wrote paper.

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Smith, S.W., Vandenberghe, C., Hastings, A. et al. Optimizing Carbon Storage Within a Spatially Heterogeneous Upland Grassland Through Sheep Grazing Management. Ecosystems 17, 418–429 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-013-9731-7

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Keywords:

  • livestock grazing
  • Molinia caerulea
  • RothC
  • soil carbon
  • spatial heterogeneity
  • upland