Abstract. Models of semiarid vegetation dynamics were evaluated to explain changes in the grassland of interior South Island, New Zealand. Annual records were taken for six years of plant species height frequency and percentage ground cover in five plots established in 1986. One subplot at each site was fenced to exclude sheep, one to exclude rabbits and sheep, and one remained unfenced as a control.
Records from 1986–1992 were analysed by ordination. The overall pattern of vegetation change shows considerable year-to-year variation. At some sites, variation in vegetation composition between years was as great as, or greater than, that between grazed and ungrazed subplots. Such variation is particularly evident in grazed vegetation, perhaps because it is under greater stress than ungrazed vegetation. At one site changes in vegetation total cover and species composition could be statistically related to rainfall during the first half of the growing season.
The only general trends following cessation of grazing were for perennials to increase in frequency, and for year-to-year changes to become smaller with time. Total vegetation cover values seldom changed as a result of cessation of grazing, but tended to follow year-to-year changes in species frequency.
The results do not in general support switch/state-and-transition models of semi-arid vegetation dynamics. Vegetation change follows changes in grazing and climate with little lag. This most closely conforms with the Pulse-phase dynamic model.