• grazing intensity;
  • breed;
  • vegetation diversity;
  • structural diversity;
  • richness;
  • dominance;
  • species turnover;
  • heterogeneity


Finding an optimal balance between livestock production and grazing impact on plant biodiversity is an important issue in the design of grazing systems. This paper describes a study of the effect of two levels of grazing intensity combined with different animal breeds on plant biodiversity and sward structural diversity of semi-natural grasslands conducted over 3 years in the United Kingdom (UK), France (F), Germany (D) and Italy (I). There were three treatments at each site: moderate grazing intensity with a commercial breed (MC), lenient grazing intensity with a commercial breed (LC) and lenient grazing intensity with a traditional breed (LT). Grazing livestock were cattle in the UK, F and D, and sheep in I. Only grazing intensity had clear effects on vegetation diversity, the effects depending on site-specific vegetation characteristics. In more diverse pastures with finer scale heterogeneity in F and I, there was little effect of the treatments. In less diverse swards with higher grass dominance and coarse-scale heterogeneity, the number of species decreased from initial levels on the lenient grazing intensity treatments (treatments LC and LT), because of increased dominance of grasses reducing the cover of other species, particularly legumes. The structural diversity of the pastures was more affected by level of grazing intensity than botanical diversity. In more diverse, semi-natural grasslands, structural heterogeneity was not affected by the treatments. In less diverse, more productive swards, structural heterogeneity decreased where large patches were initially found on the UK site, and increased where smaller patches were initially found on the D site. It is concluded that management systems to conserve diversity need to consider carefully the background environment, and that more knowledge of the mechanisms involved is needed at farm and landscape scales.