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Empirical studies have suggested that species richness of grassland insects usually decreases under grazing management. By contrast, grazing has been shown to increase the species density and richness of vascular plants, especially on productive soils. In order to test the suggested differences in response to management between plants and insects, we simultaneously studied species richness of vascular plants and their insect herbivores, butterflies and moths, in 68 semi-natural grasslands with varying grazing intensity and frequency in SW Finland. Species richness of plants and insects was for the first time related to a quantitative measure of disturbance intensity and successional age, mean vegetation height, by using generalized additive models (GAM). The effects of soil nutrients on vegetation height were accounted for by using phosphorus concentration as a productivity surrogate.

The results showed that species richness of butterflies and moths peaked in taller vegetation compared with vascular plants, corresponding to a lower disturbance intensity and increasing time since abandonment. These patterns are discussed in the light of two hypotheses, the “structural diversity hypothesis” and “dynamic equilibrium model” of Huston, both suggesting a weaker disturbance tolerance of insects compared with plants. Butterflies and moths which are specialists in their larval host-plant use (monophagous and oligophagous species) preferred lower vegetation (higher disturbances) compared with generalists (polyphagous species), as predicted by Huston's model. This difference indicates a stronger relationship with plant species richness for specialist than for generalist butterflies and moths. Our results support the application of regionally and temporally varying grazing intensities in grassland conservation management.