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Keywords:

  • competition;
  • disturbance;
  • Mediterranean sheep;
  • species richness

Summary

  • 1
    The interactive effect of grazing and small-scale variation in primary productivity on the diversity of an annual plant community was studied in a semiarid Mediterranean rangeland in Israel over 4 years. The response of the community to protection from sheep grazing by fenced exclosures was compared in four neighbouring topographic sites (south- and north-facing slopes, hilltop and wadi (dry stream) shoulders), differing in vegetation, physical characteristics and soil resources. The herbaceous annual vegetation was highly diverse, including 128 species. Average small-scale species richness of annuals ranged between 5 and 16 species within a 20 × 20 cm quadrat, and was strongly affected by year and site.
  • 2
    Above-ground potential productivity at peak season (i.e. in fenced subplots) was typical of semiarid ecosystems (10–200 g m−2), except on wadi shoulders (up to 700 g m−2), where it reached the range of subhumid grassland ecosystems. Grazing increased richness in the high productivity site (i.e. wadi), but did not affect, or reduced, it in the low productivity sites (south- and north-facing slopes, hilltop). Under grazing, species richness was positively and linearly related to potential productivity along the whole range of productivity. Without grazing, this relationship was observed only at low productivity (< 200 g m−2).
  • 3
    The effect of grazing along the productivity gradient on different components of richness was analysed. At low productivity, number of abundant, common and rare species all tended to increase with productivity, both with and without grazing. Rare species increased three times compared with common and abundant species. At high productivity, only rare species continued to increase with productivity under grazing, while in the absence of grazing species number in the different abundance groups was not related to productivity.
  • 4
    In this semiarid Mediterranean rangeland, diversity of the annual plant community is determined by the interaction between grazing and small-scale spatial and temporal variation in primary productivity, operating mainly on the less abundant species in the community.