The irreversible cattle-driven transformation of a seasonally flooded Australian savanna


  • Ben R. Sharp,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TB, UK and
    2. Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management, Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia
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  • Robert J. Whittaker

    1. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TB, UK and
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*Ben R. Sharp, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB, UK. E-mail:


Aim  Anecdotal historical and photographic evidence suggests that woody vegetation is increasing dramatically in some northern Australian savanna habitats. Vegetation change in savannas has important implications for pastoral land-use, conservation management, and landscape-scale carbon storage, and informs theoretical debates about ecosystem function. This study seeks to determine the nature, extent and cause(s) of woody vegetation change in a seasonally flooded alluvial savanna habitat.

Location  The study area is located within the seasonally inundated alluvial zone of the tidal portion of the Victoria River, Northern Territory, Australia. The study area has been grazed by domestic stock since c. 1900, prior to which the area was inhabited and more likely regularly burnt by Aboriginal people for thousands of years.

Methods  Digital georeferenced aerial photographic coverages were used to examine and quantify woody vegetation change between 1948 and 1993. Transect surveys of woody and herbaceous vegetation were carried out to ground-truth air-photo results and determine the nature and causes of observed vegetation changes.

Results  There has been a dramatic increase in woody vegetation cover throughout the study area. Vegetation change patterns are roughly uniform across the full range of edaphic habitat variation and are unrelated to the depositional age of fluvial sediments. Two woody species, Eucalyptus microtheca and Excoecaria parvifolia, are predominantly responsible for observed increases. Demographic analyses reveal that woody invasions have been episodic and indicate that in most locations peak woody species establishment occurred in the mid-1970s. Grasses are almost absent in a majority of habitats within the study area. Instead, large areas are covered by scalded soil, dense invasive weed populations, and unpalatable forbs and sedges. What grasses do occur are predominantly of very low value for grazing. The condition of the herbaceous layer renders most of the study area almost completely non-flammable; what fires do burn are small and of low intensity.

Main conclusions  Multiple working hypotheses explaining observed patterns of woody vegetation increase were considered and rejected in turn. The only hypothesis consistent with the evidence is as follows: (1) observed changes are a direct consequence of extreme overgrazing by cattle, most likely when stocking rates peaked in the mid-1970s; (2) prolonged heavy grazing effected the complete transformation of much of the herbaceous vegetation to a new state that is not flammable; and (3) in the absence of regular fire mortality, woody vegetation increased rapidly. The relatively treeless system that existed in 1948 was apparently stable and resilient to moderate grazing levels, and perhaps also to episodic heavy grazing events. However, grazing intensity in excess of a sustainable threshold has forced a transition that is irreversible in the foreseeable future. Stable-state transitions such as this one inform debates at the heart of ecological theory, such as the nature of stability, resilience, equilibrium and carrying capacity in dynamic savanna ecosystems.