The fertile island effect collapses under extreme overgrazing: evidence from a shrub-encroached grassland

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Background and aims

Woody plant encroachment is a phenomenon of global concern in drylands due to demonstrated reductions in livestock carrying capacity. However, shrubs are known to contribute to the development of patches of enhanced fertility that might offset any negative effects of increasing grazing. We measured soil physical and chemical characteristics within shrub and open patches across a gradient in livestock grazing to explore how the relative effect of shrubs might change with increasing grazing-induced disturbance.


Soil carbon, nitrogen phosphorus and bulk density were measured within 92 shrub patches and their paired interspaces at five sites ranging from long-grazed to long-ungrazed in a semiarid grassland encroached by the N-fixing shrub Caragana microphylla. We used a combination of linear and structural equation modelling to test whether shrubs might buffer any negative effects of overgrazing on soils.


Shrub soils were more porous, and had more organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus than interspace soils. Within both microsites, however, soil bulk density increased, and soil organic carbon and nutrients declined, with increasing grazing intensity. Grazing reduced interspace plant cover and height and exacerbated the negative effects of bulk density on soil carbon, whereas shrubs had the opposite effect. The relative importance of shrubs for soil carbon and nutrients increased with increasing grazing intensity but collapsed under extreme overgrazing.


These findings highlight the effect of grazing in promoting shrub dominance, which can also prevent grassland degradation. However, any positive effects of grazing collapsed when sites were severely overgrazed.

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This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41671044), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFC0500603), a National Non-profit Institute Research Grant of CAAS (938-1), the International S & T Cooperation Project of China (2017YFE0104500), and the Special Funding for the Modern Agricultural Technology System of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.

Author information

Y. Y. designed the experiment; Y.C., Y.Y., D.X., C.W., and X.W. conducted the field work. Y.C., Y.Y. and D.J.E. performed the data analyses and wrote the manuscript, and all authors provided comments on the manuscript and the revisions and approved the final version.

Correspondence to Yuchun Yan.

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Cai, Y., Yan, Y., Xu, D. et al. The fertile island effect collapses under extreme overgrazing: evidence from a shrub-encroached grassland. Plant Soil (2020) doi:10.1007/s11104-020-04426-2

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  • Fertile patch
  • Overgrazing
  • Shrub
  • Soil nutrients
  • Temperate grassland