1. Small fenced reserves are perceived to require management interventions to maintain ecosystems in a natural state. Such interventions are typically initiated and assessed on the basis of short-term observations, while slow changes are often misunderstood or missed entirely. Long-term monitoring is therefore crucial to understand the effect of reserve management on ecosystem structure and functioning.
2. We analysed a 15-year data set of herbaceous vegetation data for 59 monitoring sites in two nature reserves of different size and with different management regimes in a semi-arid, South African savanna. Community composition and vegetation structure (basal cover) were assessed in response to rainfall and management variables.
3. No directional changes over time were found. Basal cover as measured by two proxies (distance to the nearest tuft and tuft diameter) increased with current and previous year rainfall. The relative abundance of functional groups also responded to rainfall, with perennial grasses increasing in relative abundance following a wet year. Compositional responses, as measured by a dissimilarity index of species relative abundance, showed a 2-year lag and responses were larger following dry years than wet years.
4. The response to rainfall of distance to the nearest tuft was significantly weaker in the smaller reserve, while compositional change during dry years was larger than in the larger reserve.
5. Synthesis and applications. Most of the variation in herbaceous basal cover and community composition was associated with differences between years (time) at each site, rather than with differences between sites (space), indicating that inter-annual variation in rainfall is the most important driver of herbaceous layer dynamics in these systems. However, management did modify the effects of rainfall on herbaceous structure and community composition. The smaller reserve, which had higher grazer and waterhole density, showed greater fluctuations in key herbaceous variables. Such reserves are common in southern Africa and probably require more careful management than larger reserves in the face of global climate change.