The effects of soil type and management strategy on vegetation structure and function in a semi-arid savanna, South Africa

Britz, Mari-Louise (2004)

Thesis (MSc)--Stellenbosch University, 2004.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Bush encroachment in savannas leads to reduced diversity, productivity and profitability of rangelands. This holds important implications for the livestock and eco-tourism industries, as well as for subsistence ranchers in the South African semi-arid savannas, who depend on this vegetation type for economic and livelihood purposes. Soil moisture, nutrients, rue and herbivory are generally regarded as the principal factors determining vegetation structure and function within savannas. The factors and processes involved in the determination of the tree:grass ratio within savannas are, however, not clearly understood. We investigated the role of soil type and management strategy (cattle, game and communal grazing) in the determination of the presence and distribution of plant species in general, and on the presence and distribution of the encroaching tree species, Acacia mellifera, specifically. Both shortand long-term trends were investigated. The study area, the Kimberley Triangle, (Northern Cape Province, South Africa), was ideal for this kind of study because it has different management strategies practised on several soil types, and bush encroachment is a widespread phenomenon. Contrary to the belief that heavy livestock grazing is the main cause of increases in the tree:grass ratio, we found that soil type, through its effects on plant growth and on the presence and availability of soil moisture and nutrients, is more important in determining vegetation composition than management strategy. It was found that the various types of grazing management mainly influenced vegetation structure and function by affecting the competitive interactions between Ns-fixing woody species and non-Ns-fixing grasses. Of the soil factors affecting vegetation composition, soil texture was a good indicator of the physical conditions for plant growth in an area, and also of the presence and availability of soil moisture and nutrients. We found that sand and clay soils are relatively resistant to bush encroachment as compared to loamy-sand and -clay mixes. This is because woody growth is impaired in the first-mentioned habitats by soil texture, soil moisture regimes and heavy utilisation. In soils with combinations of loam, sand and clay, soil texture and moisture are not limiting to woody growth and if the repressive competitive effect of grasses on woody vegetation is removed, opportunities are created for recruitment of woody species and encroachment. Additionally, rockiness increases soil moisture infiltration. In the study area, woody species, and specifically A. mellifera, are associated with these areas. We suggest that in the study area, rocky areas are naturally encroached. This is in agreement with the patchdynamic approach to savanna vegetation dynamics. Because soil moisture is such an important factor in the determination of the tree:grass ratio in the study area, we further suggest that in above-average rainfall years, when soil moisture conditions are optimal for woody seed germination, establishment and growth, heavy grazing should be avoided, as it would provide the opportunity for encroachment. Keywords: Bush encroachment; N2-fixing species; game, cattle, communal grazing; soil texture; soil moisture; soil nutrients; Acacia mellifera; tree-grass competition.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Bosindringing in savanna gebiede het verlaagde diversiteit, produktiwiteit en winsgewendheid van natuurlike weivelde tot gevolg. Behalwe dat dit die Suid-Afrikaanse vee- en ekotoerisme bedrywe raak, is verskeie bestaansboerderye afhanklik van die plantegroei-tipe vir oorlewing. Grondvog, grondvoedingstowwe, vuur en beweiding word algemeen aanvaar as die belangrikste faktore wat die struktuur en funksie van savannas bepaal. Daar is egter nog nie duidelikheid oor die prosesse wat betrokke is in die bepaling van die boom-gras verhouding in savannas nie. In dié studie het ons ondersoek ingestel na die invloed van grond tipe en beweidingstrategieë (beweiding deur beeste, wild, of kommunale beweiding) op die algemene verspreiding van verskillende plant spesies, en ook op die van die indringer spesie, Acacia mellifera. Beide kort- en lang-termyn patrone is ondersoek. Die studiegebied, die Kimberley Driehoek in die Noord-Kaap, Suid-Afrika, was ideaal vir so 'n ondersoek omdat verskillende beweiding strategieë op verskeie grond-tipes beoefen word maar bosindringing steeds 'n algemene verskynsel in die gebied is. Ons bevinding was dat, ten spyte van die feit dat daar oor die algemeen geglo word dat swaar beweiding die hoof oorsaak van bosindringing is, grond-tipe belangriker is in die bepaling van die spesie-samestelling van 'n gebied. Dit is as gevolg van die feit dat grond-tipe die groei van plante beïnvloed deur die teenwoordigheid en beskikbaarheid van grondvog en -nutriënte te bepaal. Die verskillende beweidingstrategieë beïnvloed meerendeels die kompetatiewe interaksies tussen N2-bindende hout-agtige spesies teenoor nie-Nj-bindende gras-agtige spesies. Grond-tekstuur was 'n goeie aanduiding van die algemene toestande vir plantegroei en ook van die teenwoordigheid en beskikbaarheid van grondvog en -nutriënte. Ons het bevind dat sand en klei grond, relatief tot leem, sand en klei kombinasies, weerstandbiedend is teen bosindringing as gevolg van die tekstuur, water-regimes en swaar beweidings vlakke wat op die grond-tipes voorkom. Omdat grond-tekstuur en grondvog nie beperkend is op die leem-, sand- en klei-grond kombinasies nie, kan bosindringing maklik hier voorkom as die onderdrukkende effek wat grasse op houtagtige plantegroei het, deur swaar beweiding verwyder word. A. mellifera is ook oor die algemeen met klipperige gebiede geassosieer omdat klipperigheid lei tot verhoogde infiltrasie van grondvog. In die studie-gebied is klipperige areas dan ook van nature ingedring deur A. mellifera. Dit stem ooreen met die siening dat savannas bestaan uit "laslappe" van verskillende plantegroei (patch-dynamic approach). Dit was duidelik dat grondvog 'n belangrike bepalende faktor is in die bepaling van die boom-gras verhouding in die studiegebied. Ons stel dus voor dat in bo-gemiddelde reënval jare, swaar beweiding vermy moet word, omdat houtagtige saailinge gedurende die tydperke maklik kan ontkiem en vestig juis omdat grondvog dan nie beperkend is nie. Sleutelwoorde: Bosindringing; N2-bindende spesies; bees, wild, kommunale beweiding; grond tekstuur; grond-vog; grond-nutriënte; Acacia mellifera; boom-gras kompetisie.

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