Plant responses to agricultural intensification


  • Josh Dorrough,

    Corresponding author
    1. Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria 3084, Australia; and
    2. Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre, 35 Stirling Hwy, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia
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  • Michael P. Scroggie

    1. Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria 3084, Australia; and
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*Correspondence author. Josh Dorrough, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, GPO Box 284, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia. E-mail:


  • 1A large proportion of the world's land surface is extensively managed for livestock production. In areas where livestock systems are becoming more intensive, a major challenge is to predict those plant species likely to decline, persist or increase as a result of agricultural intensification.
  • 2Most analyses develop inferences for frequent or abundant species, or rely on intensive studies of single species. A promising approach is to identify plant traits related to disturbance to enable inference to be made about changes in plant community composition. We used a Bayesian hierarchical model to analyse the response to agricultural intensification of 494 plant species of pastures and woodlands in southern Australia, and to identify how simple species’ traits (life form, growth form and species origin) influence those responses.
  • 3The probability of occurrence of most species declined along the two intensification gradients, grazing intensity and soil phosphorous concentration, although the occurrence of a greater proportion of species was negatively correlated with soil phosphorous. Responses could be broadly predicted from both plant origin and plant traits, in particular growth form.
  • 4Native perennial geophytes, ferns and shrubs were most negatively affected by both gradients, while exotic annual grasses and forbs were more tolerant. Along the phosphorous gradient, 24 of the 30 most negatively affected plant species were native geophytes. Mean within-group responses masked considerable within- and between-species variation, particularly for the exotic species group which included species that responded both negatively and positively to intensification.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. The hierarchical model described here provides a powerful method for estimating individual plant responses and identifying how species’ traits influence those responses. Plant species native to southern Australia are sensitive to grazing and phosphorous apparently due to a shared evolutionary history of low grazing intensity and low phosphorous soils. Invading exotic plants have faced strongly contrasting ecological filters, leading to a greater diversity of responses. Where grazing systems have been most intense, a small suite of exotics dominate. Maintaining native and functional plant diversity will necessitate limits being placed on intensive livestock management systems.