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Keywords:

  • Community heterogeneity;
  • Dung distribution;
  • Eutrophication;
  • Grazing habit;
  • Grazing lawn;
  • Soil impedance;
  • Trampling
  • Correa (1971;
  • 1978) for Gramineae and Compositae and Moore (1983) for other families of vascular plants

Abstract. In the Festuca gracillima tussock steppe of northern Tierra del Fuego there is a physiognomic pattern at the community scale composed of a matrix of tussocks, scrub patches of Chiliotrichum diffusum and lawn patches. In this paper we compared floristic composition, soils, microclimate and sheep use of these three types. Species composition greatly differed among physiognomic types. Lawn patches showed the highest diversity and maximum cover of exotics, grazing escape growth forms and species of high-fertility habitats. Soil profiles of tussock steppe and lawn were similar but the A-horizon of the latter contained more clay and cations. Radiation and temperature during daylight at the soil surface in summer were highest in the lawn patches. Soil impedance, a good indicator of trampling, was highest on the lawn patches. According to dung pellet density, lawn patches received much heavier use than the tussock matrix. Our results suggest that lawn patches supported the highest grazing impact and undergo a eutrophication process favoured by high mineral inputs, high mineralization rates in the soil during the warm season and restricted leaching through the profile. They also support the idea that a feedback mechanism between vegetation heterogeneity and sheep grazing behaviour maintains the patches. Although grazing behaviour suggests that the lawn patches favour animal production, their expansion would result in a system less protected against the impact of water deficits and temperature variations and more vulnerable to erosion and to the loss of important species.