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Effects of grazing on plant composition, conservation status and ecosystem services of Natura 2000 shrub-grassland habitat types

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The Natura 2000 network is crucial to conserve biodiversity in the European Union and provides hotspots for certain ecosystem services. Grazing, a common land use in different Natura 2000 habitat types, may contribute to the maintenance of protected plant communities and reduce fuel loads and wildfire hazard. Our study aims to assess the effects of grazing on plant composition and conservation status of calcareous shrub-grassland Natura 2000 habitat types, as well as its effects on fire hazard reduction and aboveground carbon storage. We surveyed plant communities grazed by goats in fenced (ungrazed) and open (grazed) plots in a mosaic of calcareous shrub-grassland habitat types and assessed plant species composition and habitat conservation status. We also assessed aboveground plant biomass in grazed and ungrazed plots and modelled potential fire behaviour in those plots for each habitat. With the exception of cryptogams, grazing did not affect plant cover, but positively affected species richness (mean ± SD: 26.80 ± 11.65 vs. 29.37 ± 8.59, P = 0.01; fenced vs. unfenced) and Shannon diversity (2.11 ± 0.81 vs. 2.33 ± 0.55, P < 0.01) in the habitat mosaic. Furthermore, grazing did not affect the conservation status of two out of three of the studied habitat types. Additionally, grazing decreased the fire hazard in grass and dwarf shrub communities without reducing aboveground carbon stocks significantly. Our results show that moderate grazing is a management practice that effectively contribute to the conservation of Natura 2000 shrub-grassland habitat types through reduction of wildfire hazard and maintenance of habitat conservation status.

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The first author acknowledges the FCT-Foundation for Science and Technology PhD Programme SUSFOR Grant (PD/BD/52696/2014) and the logistic support for fieldwork from Cooperativa Terra Chã, especially to António Frazão for allowing the opportunity to accompany the flock in the field and collect the data. We thank Elsa Gonçalves (University of Lisbon) for helping with statistical analysis, Palmira Carvalho (University of Lisbon) for identifying lichens species, Carlos Carmona Belo (National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinary Research) for useful discussions on stocking rate, Maria Conceição Colaço and Ana Águas (University of Lisbon) for help during field and laboratory work. ICNF kindly allowed use of the habitat cartography. Figure 4 use icons made by Freepik and nikita-golubev, from This work is funded by FEDER funds through the Operational Programme for Competitiveness Factors—COMPETE and by National Funds through FCT under the UID/BIA/50027/2019 and POCI-01-0145-FEDER-006821. This research was also funded by the FCT Grant number UID/AGR/04033/2013 and POCI-01-0145-FEDER-006958 (CITAB-UTAD). FXC and ADC were supported by FCT Grants, SFRH/BPD/93373/2013 and LEAF-AGR/04129/BPD/2015, respectively, and MNB by Principal Investigator research contract IF01171/2014. We also thank three anonymous referees for their valuable comments, which significantly improved the clarity of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Vasco Silva.

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Communicated by Daniel Sanchez Mata.

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Silva, V., Catry, F.X., Fernandes, P.M. et al. Effects of grazing on plant composition, conservation status and ecosystem services of Natura 2000 shrub-grassland habitat types. Biodivers Conserv 28, 1205–1224 (2019).

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