• desertification;
  • landscape function;
  • matric potential;
  • microtopography;
  • soil nutrient

Abstract  Succulent thicket in the Eastern Cape of South Africa is one of many rangeland ecosystems in the world that displays evidence of unsustainable grazing pressure. Widespread transformation of succulent thicket has resulted in the replacement of the typical two-phase perennial vegetation patches with a structurally simple field layer of ephemeral and weakly perennial grasses and forbs. We hypothesized that (i) transformation of succulent thicket leads to a switch from a spatially heterogeneous landscape to a homogenous and relatively infertile state; and (ii) that this loss of fertility is associated with a breakdown in the processes that conserve resources and promote water use efficiency. We tested these hypotheses at five fenceline contrast sites in Sundays River Thicket, an arid form of succulent thicket. We compared soil fertility (organic carbon, available nitrogen and phosphorus), texture, matric potential, and surface microtopography in the two main microhabitats on either side of the fencelines using a nested anova. Our results show that intact Sundays River thicket has a distinct spatial pattern of soil fertility where nutrients and organic carbon are concentrated under the patches of perennial shrubs, compared with under canopy trees. Transformation results in a significant homogenization of this pattern and an overall reduction in the fertility of the landscape. The proportion of the landscape surface that promotes infiltration due to a distinct litter layer decreases from 60% to 0.6%. Soil moisture retention (matric potential) also decreases with transformation. We interpret these patterns within the framework of semi-arid landscape functionality.