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Nitrogen Depletion and Redistribution by Free-Ranging Cattle in the Restoration Process of Mosaic Landscapes: The Role of Foraging Strategy and Habitat Proportion

Authors

  • Jan Van Uytvanck,

    Corresponding author
    1. Research Institute for Nature and Forest, Kliniekstraat 25, B-1070 Brussels, Belgium
    2. Terrestrial Ecology Unit, Department of Biology, Ghent University, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
      J. Van Uytvanck, email jan.vanuytvanck@inbo.be
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  • Tanja Milotic,

    1. Research Institute for Nature and Forest, Kliniekstraat 25, B-1070 Brussels, Belgium
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  • Maurice Hoffmann

    1. Research Institute for Nature and Forest, Kliniekstraat 25, B-1070 Brussels, Belgium
    2. Terrestrial Ecology Unit, Department of Biology, Ghent University, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
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J. Van Uytvanck, email jan.vanuytvanck@inbo.be

Abstract

In a mosaic landscape in N-Belgium (W-Europe), consisting of forest, grassland, and wooded pasture on former agricultural land, we assessed nitrogen redistribution by free-ranging cattle (±0.2 animal units ha−1 yr−1). We examined if the spatial redistribution of nitrogen among habitats by cattle could restore nutrient-poor conditions in preferred foraging habitats, and conversely whether such translocation could lead to extreme eutrophication in preferred resting habitats. We used nitrogen content of different diet classes, habitat use, foraging and defecation behavior, weight gain, and nitrogen losses in the actual situation to explore four different habitat proportion scenarios and two different foraging strategies to calculate a net nitrogen balance per habitat. An atmospheric deposition of 30 kg N ha−1 yr−1 with varying interception factors according to the habitat types was included in an integrated nitrogen balance. All scenarios showed a net nitrogen transport from grassland and wooded pasture to forest habitat. We found that nitrogen redistribution strongly depends on habitat proportion. Nitrogen losses from preferred grassland habitat can be high, given its proportion is small. Depletion is only to be expected at excretion-free areas and probably is of minor importance to trigger the establishment of woody species. In general, nitrogen transported by cattle was much lower than input by atmospheric deposition, but grazing can compensate for high N inputs in excretion-free areas and maintain grassland types that support critical loads of 20–25 kg N ha−1 yr−1. In none of the scenarios, N transport by cattle resulted in the exceeding of critical nitrogen loads to vulnerable forest ground vegetation.

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