1. Sustainable management of rangelands will become increasingly important as the climate changes, yet rangeland dynamics are still a challenge to dryland ecologists because degradation patterns are difficult to sample and interpret. There are contradictions between remote sensing-based studies and field-based analyses, for which long-term data are almost non-existent. In the rangelands of North Senegal, remote sensing studies have not revealed any extensive degradation during the past three decades. The present study used a 27-year series of field data from the area to assess the impact of grazing on rangeland degradability.
2. Rainfall, standing crop and floristic data from North Senegal were analysed to quantify the effects of rainfall patterns and grazing on plant composition and the overall rain use efficiency. Monitoring plots of 1 ha comprised five ungrazed and 19 grazed plots with two different grazing treatments. Standing crop was sampled annually at the peak of biomass development. Data were analysed with mixed effect models.
3. Changes in herbaceous production were mainly caused by fluctuations in rainfall, whereas the grazing intensity had a long-term effect, interacting with precipitation dynamics. During the first and drier phase, the rainfall variability masked the grazing influence, whereas during the second phase with above-average rainfall, grazing treatments differed significantly, indicating rangeland degradation.
4. The patterns of productivity and floristic composition followed predominant non-equilibrium dynamics during the first phase (rainfall variability 40%), whereas gradual changes especially in species composition represented characteristics of equilibrium systems during the second phase (rainfall variability 23%). Thus, the study supports the existence of shifts between periods of non-equilibrium conditions and those more typical of equilibrium systems.
5. Synthesis and applications. Our 27 years field study, carried out with the aim of assessing the non-degradability of Sahelian rangelands, revealed long-term degradation trends linked to grazing intensity. Longer observation periods provide an increasing probability of including ‘equilibrium phases’ that allow the identification of long-term degradation processes. Consequently, both rangeland research and management policies demand monitoring periods that are long enough to account for long-term trends. The grazing experiment in this study has shown that degradation processes are reversible, but long-term exclosure and ranching with fixed stocking rates are less suitable for rangeland amelioration than moderate, production-adjusted grazing regimes mimicking traditional nomadic systems.