• environmental trend;
  • grazing gradients;
  • monitoring;
  • non-equilibrium rangelands;
  • remote sensing

1. Change in environmental conditions in the complex non-equilibrium rangelands of arid Australia is difficult to monitor. We show how trends in rangeland condition can be identified from changes over time in the pattern of vegetation growth across gradients of differing grazing intensity.

2. Grazing intensity was measured indirectly using distance from water. Vegetation growth was derived from remotely sensed vegetation index values before and after large rainfalls. The amount of growth was adjusted for initial vegetation cover to give a standard measure of vegetation response.

3. A vegetation response ratio was derived by comparing areas less than 4 km from water with benchmark areas further away. Systematic changes in this ratio over time indicate a trend.

4. Ratio values from test areas suggested decline, improvement and no change, consistent with recent management history.

5. The method can be applied where the whole area is affected by grazing and relatively pristine benchmarks are unavailable. It could therefore be useful in the semi-arid rangelands where paddocks are smaller than in the arid part of Australia. It also has possible uses in the rangelands of Africa and the Americas. There is potential for applying the method to traditional grazing systems as well as to commercial pastoralism.

6. The method is cheaper and more effective than other techniques and increases the capacity of grazing gradient-based monitoring schemes for arid and semi-arid areas.