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Winners and losers in a long-term study of vegetation change at Moor House NNR: Effects of sheep-grazing and its removal on British upland vegetation

This paper, published in a Special Issue of the journal Ecological Indicators to mark 20 years of data collection at ECN terrestrial sites, investigates the effects of sheep grazing on vegetation through the use of a long-term sheep exclosure study.
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Milligan, G., Rose, RJ. and Marrs, RH. (2016). Winners and losers in a long-term study of vegetation change at Moor House NNR: Effects of sheep-grazing and its removal on British upland vegetation. Ecological Indicators68, 89-101. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.10.053.

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We analysed data collected between 1954 and 2000 from nine long-term experiments designed to assess the effects of sheep-grazing versus no-sheep-grazing at Moor House NNR, an Environmental Change Network site. The experiments were set up between 1954 and 1972 across a range of vegetation types typical of much of upland Britain. Data from this type of experiment are often difficult to analyse and we describe the procedures undertaken to prepare the data for analysis. We fitted the resultant data to the British National Vegetation Classification and used ordination techniques to assess the relative positions of the experiments to each other. Finally, we used Generalized Linear Mixed-effects Modelling within a Bayesian framework to model change of species taxonomic/physiognomic groups through time in both sheep-grazed and ungrazed treatments across all nine experiments; variables included species diversity, Shannon–Weiner index and derived data on occurrence and abundance of species groups based on taxonomy and physiognomy. Hurdle analysis was used to model the species groups; this analysis separated the change through time in both probability of occurrence (binomial distribution) and abundance (Poisson distribution).

In the sheep-grazed plots (the “business-as-usual” treatment hence here designated the “control”) there was a reduction in species diversity and a decrease in abundance of vascular plants, grasses, lichens, liverworts and mosses; whereas herbs, sedges and shrubs increased. When probability of occurrence was considered, there was a reduction in number of presences of both lichens and liverworts. Thus, the status quo management of continuous sheep-grazing, even though reduced since 1972, has resulted in a marked change in species composition of these plant communities, with some winners and some losers, but overall they support the concept of biotic homogenization. It is likely that some of these changes were driven by external factors such as elevated atmospheric nutrient deposition. Removal of sheep grazing had some positive benefits; with the herbs, mosses, sedges and shrubs increasing, but faster reductions in grasses and liverworts. Sedges + rushes were stable. It suggested that future monitoring schemes might use either the probability of occurrence of liverworts and lichens, or the abundance of lichens, liverworts, grasses and mosses as sensitive indicators of change in upland Britain.

Moreover, during the period that Moor House has been protected as a nature reserve some key plant species groups have declined in spite of reductions in grazing pressure. To reverse this trend requires some form of interventionist management. In order to increase the diversity of vascular plants some form of disturbance will probably be needed, but for bryophytes and lichens this remains a research question. If the results from these small-scale experiments are replicated at the landscape scale a reduction of sheep grazing pressure, for example in rewilding schemes, will have little effect on species composition over a 28–44 year period.