The impact of 36 years of grazing management on vegetation dynamics in dune slacks



  1. Grazing mammals are often used to maintain and restore high conservation value plant communities, but the evidence base for management is lacking long-term studies.

  2. We erected grazing exclosures in dune slacks to determine the impact of three different grazing regimes on the plant community: (1) rabbits and sheep excluded for 36 years, (2) continued rabbit grazing for 36 years and (3) rabbit grazing for 17 years followed by rabbit and sheep grazing for 19 years. We monitored plant community composition inside and outside the exclosures.

  3. All of the plant communities changed over time, moving away from the original high-value system and losing some characteristic species. Grazing slowed succession, reduced woody perennial cover and increased graminoid and forb cover and species diversity. The impact of adding sheep grazing to the existing rabbit grazing was additive at the functional group scale, but both complementary and additive (depending on the species) at the plant species scale.

  4. Synthesis and applications. At the levels of grazing present in this study (2·5 sheep ha−1 year−1), sheep had similar impacts on dune slack plant communities to rabbits, making them suitable for replacing or augmenting rabbit grazing for conservation management. At the intensity present in this study, long-term grazing can help to maintain a species-rich dune slack community but is not sufficient for successful restoration.