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Keywords:

  • Australia;
  • degradation;
  • grazing;
  • long-term ecology;
  • pastoral landscapes;
  • rangelands;
  • sheep diet;
  • stable carbon isotopes;
  • tree thickening;
  • vegetation history

Abstract

Aim  Conflicting perceptions of past and present rangeland condition and limited historical data have led to debate regarding the management of vegetation in pastoral landscapes both internationally and in Australia. In light of this controversy we have sought to provide empirical evidence to determine the trajectory of vegetational change in a semi-arid rangeland for a significant portion of the 20th century using a suite of proxy measures.

Location  Ambathala Station, approximately 780 km west of Brisbane, in the semi-arid rangelands of south-western Queensland, Australia.

Methods  We excavated stratified deposits of sheep manure which had accumulated beneath a shearing shed between the years 1930 and 1995. Multi-proxy data, including pollen and leaf cuticle analyses and analysis of historical aerial photography were coupled with a fine resolution radiocarbon chronology to generate a near annual history of vegetation on the property and local area.

Results  Aerial photography indicates that minor (< 5%) increases in the density of woody vegetation took place between 1951 and 1994 in two thirds of the study area not subjected to clearing. Areas that were selectively or entirely cleared prior to the 1950s (approximately 16% of the study area) had recovered to almost 60% of their original cover by the 1994 photo period. This slight thickening is only partially evident from pollen and leaf cuticle analyses of sheep faeces. Very little change in vegetation is revealed over the nearly 65 years based on the relative abundances of pollen taxonomic groups. Microhistological examination of sheep faeces provides evidence of dramatic changes in sheep diet. The majority of dietary changes are associated with climatic events of sustained above-average rainfall or persistent drought. Most notable in the dietary analysis is the absence of grass during the first two decades of the record.

Main conclusions  In contrast to prevailing perceptions and limited research into long-term vegetation change in the semi-arid areas of eastern Australia, the record of vegetation change at the Ambathala shearing shed indicates only a minor increase in woody vegetation cover and no decrease in grass cover on the property over the 65 years of pastoral activity covered by the study. However, there are marked changes in the abundance of grass cuticles in sheep faeces. The appearance and persistence of grass in sheep diets from the late 1940s can be attributed to the effects of periods of high rainfall and possibly some clearing and thinning of vegetation. Lower stock numbers may have allowed grass to persist through later drought years. The relative abundances of major groups of plant pollen have not changed significantly over the past 65 years.