Grazing influences biomass production and protein content of alpine meadows

Laia Jarque-Bascuñana, Juan Antonio Calleja, Miguel Ibañez, Jordi Bartolomé, Elena Albanell, Johan Espunyes, Arturo Gálvez-Cerón, Josep María López-Martín, Miriam Villamuelas, Diana Gassó, Xavier Fernández-Aguilar, Andreu Colom-Cadena, Jennifer Adams Krumins, Emmanuel Serrano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

Alpine grasslands are essential for carbon sequestration and food supply for domestic and wild herbivores inhabiting mountainous areas worldwide. These biomes, however, are alternatively threatened by the abandonment of agricultural and livestock practices leading to a fast-growing shrubification process while other mountain grasslands are suffering from the impacts of overgrazing. The functioning of alpine meadow ecosystems is primarily driven by climatic conditions, land-use legacies and grazing. However, although it is critically important, the role of large herbivores on the aboveground biomass and protein content of palatable plants is poorly understood for most alpine meadows. In this work, we explore the effects of grazing on grassland vegetation at two different spatial and temporal scales in the Eastern Pyrenees, Spain. Remote sensing was used to assess the effect of high and moderate grazing (HG and MG respectively) on grass biomass using the leaf area index (LAI) at the meso-scale (patches between 2.3 and 38.7 ha). We also explored the impact of null (NG), overgrazing (MO, mimicked overgrazing) and high (HG) grazing intensities at local scale setting eighteen 1 m2 exclusion boxes in six meadows (three boxes each) commonly used by domestic and wild ungulates. Historical satellite data showed that LAI values are greater in high than in low grazed areas (HG, mean = 0.66, LG, mean = 0.55). Along the same lines, high and moderate grazing pressures improved biomass production at the local-scale (HG, mean = 590.3 g/m2, MO, mean = 389.3 g/m2 and NG, mean = 110.8 g/m2). Crude protein content reached higher values under MO pressure than under HG pressure. Our results confirm that grazing intensity exerts significant changes on the above-ground biomass production and the protein content of plants consumed by domestic (cattle and horses) and wild ungulates (Southern Chamois, Rupicapra pyrenaica). We can conclude that ungulates sustain biomass and nutritive values of grass exerting a negligible effect on biomass and protein content of woody vegetation. Our results will inform management guidelines to support profitable grazing activities and promote conservation of the open landscapes in the alpine ecosystems under the current global change scenario.

Original languageEnglish
Article number151771
JournalScience of the Total Environment
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

Keywords

  • Biomass production
  • Forage quality
  • Grassland management
  • Mountain stock farming
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Rupicapra pyrenaica

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