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Removal of livestock alters native plant and invasive mammal communities in a dry grassland–shrubland ecosystem

Abstract

The impacts of domesticated herbivores on ecosystems that did not evolve with mammalian grazing can profoundly influence community composition and trophic interactions. Also, such impacts can occur over long time frames by altering successional vegetation trajectories. Removal of domesticated herbivores to protect native biota can therefore lead to unexpected consequences at multiple trophic levels for native and non-native species. In the eastern South Island of New Zealand large areas of seral grassland–shrubland have had livestock (sheep and cattle) removed following changes in land tenure. The long-term (>10 years) outcomes for these communities are complex and difficult to predict: land may return to a native-dominated woody plant community or be invaded by exotic plants and mammals. We quantified direct and indirect effects of livestock removal on this ecosystem by comparing plant and invasive mammal communities at sites where grazing by livestock ceased c.10–35 years ago (conservation sites) with paired sites where pastoralism has continued to the present (pastoral sites). There was higher total native plant richness and reduced richness of exotic plants on conservation sites compared with pastoral sites. Further, there were differences in the use of conservation and pastoral sites by invasive mammals: rabbits and hedgehogs favoured sites grazed by livestock whereas house mice, brushtail possums and hares favoured conservation sites. Changes in the relative abundance of invasive mammal species after removal of domesticated livestock may compromise positive outcomes for conservation in successional plant communities with no evolutionary history of mammalian grazing.

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Acknowledgments

C Jensen, R Carran, E Hayman, V Harrison and G Pech assisted with collection of field data. N Thornley from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) provided maps showing boundaries of properties transferred to the conservation estate. C Thomson and J Whitford helped with site selection. R Duncan helped with data analysis and interpretation. Access to sites was provided by H Inch, B and J Kirk, G Burrows and DOC. This work was greatly improved by discussions with S Walker, S Timmins, C Krebs, ARE Sinclair, A Kenney, and J Reardon. A Mark provided insightful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. This work was funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Building, Innovation and Employment’s Science and Innovation Group, through core funding to Crown Research Institutes and funding for contracted projects C09X0505 and C09X0909.

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Correspondence to Andrea E. Byrom.

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Whitehead, A.L., Byrom, A.E., Clayton, R.I. et al. Removal of livestock alters native plant and invasive mammal communities in a dry grassland–shrubland ecosystem. Biol Invasions 16, 1105–1118 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-013-0565-1

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Keywords

  • Biotic invasions
  • Exotic plant
  • Invasive mammal
  • Livestock removal
  • Native plant richness
  • Pastoralism