The effects of extensive grazing on the vegetation of a landscape-scale restoration site

Main Article Content

Peter Stroh
John Bragg
Peter Carey
Carol Laidlaw
Martin Lester
J. Owen Mountford
Geoff Smith
Tim Sparks
Stuart Warrington
Francine Hughes


The Wicken Fen Vision (Cambridgeshire, UK) is a landscape-scale habitat restoration project that uses process-driven, open-ended approaches to develop habitats on highly degraded and drained peat soils of former intensive arable land. The project land is extensively grazed with herds of free-roaming, minimally managed herds of Highland cattle and Konik horses. In one 119 ha area, seven 25m x 25 m grazing exclosures were erected and vascular plant species were recorded from 2007 to 2017. Plant species data were analysed to (1) compare changes in plant species composition and diversity in grazed and ungrazed areas; (2) use plant species traits and plant-environment associations to explore the nature of changes in plant composition; (3) use remote sensing to explore changes in vegetation structure; (4) examine the influence of land use histories on grazing outcomes in different parts of the site.
There was a clear divergence through time between grazed and ungrazed areas, attributed to significantly greater canopy height, Ellenberg L (Light) and Ellenberg N (fertility) values within the exclosures. Species richness was significantly higher in grazed compared with ungrazed areas and species assemblages separated through the study period. After ten years, extensive free-roaming grazing has had significant impacts on vegetation structure and species richness but effects varied across the study site because of differing historical land use.

Article Details

How to Cite
Stroh, P., Bragg, J., Carey, P., Laidlaw, C., Lester, M., Mountford, J. O., Smith, G., Sparks, T., Warrington, S., & Hughes, F. (2021). The effects of extensive grazing on the vegetation of a landscape-scale restoration site. European Journal of Ecology, 7(2).


Bakker, C., Blair, J. M. & Knapp, A. K. (2003). Does resource availability, resource heterogeneity or species turnover mediate changes in plant species richness in grazed grasslands? Oecologia, 137, 385–391.

Bakker, J. P. (1998). The impact of grazing on plant communities. In: Wallis de Vries, M. F., Bakker, J. P. & S. Van Wieren (Eds.) Grazing as a tool in conservation management (pp. 137–184). London: Chapman and Hall.

Birks, H.J.B. (2005). Mind the gap: how open were European primeval forests? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20, 154-156.

Chaneton, E. J. & Facelli, J. M. (1991). Disturbance effects on plant community diversity: Spatial scales and dominance hierarchies. Vegetatio, 93,143–156.

Colston, A. (2003). Beyond preservation: the challenge of ecological restoration. In: Adams, W. M. & Mulligan, M. (Eds.), Decolonizing Nature: strategies for conservation in a post-colonial era (pp. 247-267). London: Earthscan.

Cornelissen, P., Gresnigt, M., Vermeulen, R., Bokdam, J., & Smit, R. (2014). Transition of a Sambucus nigra L. dominated woody vegetation into grassland by a multi-species herbivore assemblage Journal for Nature Conservation, 22, 84-92.

Dormaar, J. F. & Willems, W. D. (1998). Effect of forty-four years of grazing on fescue grassland soils. Journal of Range Management, 51,122–126.

Garnier, E., Stahl, U., Laporte, M.-A., Kattge, J., Mougenot, I., Kühn, I., … Klotz, S. (2017). Towards a thesaurus of plant characteristics: An ecological contribution. Journal of Ecology, 105, 298–309. https://doi. org/10.1111/1365-2745.12698

Grime, J.P. (1974) Vegetation classification by reference to strategies. Nature, 250,26-31.

Grime, J.P., Hodgson, J.G. & Hunt, R. (2007). (2nd edition). Comparative Plant Ecology. Castlepoint Press and BSBI.

Grime, J.P. (2006). Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes, and Ecosystem Processes. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Hill, M.O., Preston, C.D. & Roy, D.B. (2004). PLANTATT. Attributes of British and Irish plants: status, size, life history, geography and habitats. NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, Abbots Ripton, UK.

Hodgson, J.G., Grime, J.P., Hunt, R. & Thompson, K. (1995). The Electronic Comparative Plant Ecology. London: Chapman and Hall.

Hughes, F. M. R., Colston, A. & Mountford, J. O. (2005). Restoring riparian ecosystems: the challenge of accommodating variability and designing restoration trajectories. Ecology and Society, 10,1-12.

Hughes, F.M.R., Stroh, P. A., Adams, W.A. Kirby, K. Mountford, J.O., & Warrington, S. (2011). Monitoring and evaluating large-scale, open-ended habitat creation projects: a journey rather than a destination. Journal for Nature Conservation, 19,245-253. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2011.02.003

Hughes, F.M.R., Adams, W.M., Butchart, S.H.M., Field, R.H., Peh, K.S.-H. & Warrington, S. (2016). The challenges of integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services monitoring and evaluation at a landscape-scale wetland restoration project in the UK. Ecology and Society, 21(3),10.

Huntly, N. J. (1991). Herbivores and the dynamics of communities and ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 22,477–503.

Kirby, K.J. & Baker, A. (2013). The dynamics of pre-Neolithic landscapes and their relevance to modern conservation. In Rotherham, I.D. (Ed.) Trees, forested landscapes and grazing animals (pp.87-98). Abingdon: Routledge.

Laidlaw, C. (2019). The behaviour of free-roaming herds of highland cattle and konik polski at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. MPhil thesis, Anglia Ruskin University.

Lane, A. (1992). Practical Conservation: Grassland, Heaths and Moors. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lawton, J. H., P. N. M. Brotherton, V. K. Brown, C. Elphick, A. H. Fitter, J. Forshaw, R. W. Haddow, S. Hilborne, R. N. Leafe, G. M. Mace, M. P. Southgate, W. A. Sutherland, T. E. Tew, J. Varley & Wynne, G. R. (2010). Making space for nature: a review of England's wildlife sites and ecological network. Report to Defra, UK Government.

Mann, S. & Tischew, S. (2010). Role of megaherbivores in restoration of species-rich grasslands on former arable land in floodplains. Waldökologie, Landschaftsforschung und Naturschutz, 10, 7-15.

McCartney, M.P. & de la Hera, A. (2004). Hydrological assessment for wetland conservation at Wicken Fen. Wetland Ecology and Management, 12,189–204.

Mountford, J.O. & Sparks, T.H. (2019). Changes in the Vegetation of Wicken Fen NNR between 2010-12 and 2017-18. Final report to the National Trust.

Olff, H. & Ritchie, M. E. (1998). Effects of herbivores on grassland plant diversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 13, 261-265.

Pakeman, R. J. (2004). Consistency of plant species and trait responses to grazing along a productivity gradient: a multi-site analysis. Journal of Ecology, 92, 893–905.

Pavlů, L., Gaisler, J., Hejcmanová-Nežerková, P. & Meneses, L. (2006). Changes in plant densities in a mesic species-rich grassland after imposing different grazing management treatments. Grass and Forage Science, 61, 42–51.

Reke, A., Zarina, A & Vinogradovs, I. (2019). Management of semi-wild large herbivores’ grazing sites in Latvia. Proceedings of the 12th International Scientific and Practical Conference. Volume I, 241-244, Latvia.

Schaffers, A.P. & Sykora, K.V. (2000). Reliability of Ellenberg indicator values for moisture, nitrogen and soil reaction: a comparison with field measurements. Journal of Vegetation Science, 11, 225-244, 2000.

Smit, C., Ruifrok, J. L., van Klink, R., & Olff, H. (2015). Rewilding with large herbivores: The importance of grazing refuges for sapling establishment and wood-pasture formation. Biological Conservation, 182, 134-142.

Smith, R. S. and Rushton, S. P. (1994). The effects of grazing management on the vegetation of mesotrophic (meadow) grassland in northern England. Journal of Applied Ecology, 31, 13-24.

Soons, M. B. & Bullock, J.M. (2008), Non-random seed abscission, long-distance wind dispersal and plant migration rates. Journal of Ecology, 96,581-590. https://doi:10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01370.x

Stroh, P. A., Hughes, F.M.R., Sparks, T. & Mountford, J.O. (2012a). The influence of time on the soil seed bank and vegetation across a landscape-scale wetland restoration project. Restoration Ecology, 20,103-112.

Stroh, P.A. Hughes, F.M.R., & Mountford, J.O. (2012b). The potential for endozoochorous dispersal of temperate fen plant species by free-roaming horses. Applied Vegetation Science, 15,359-368.

Stroh, P.A., Mountford, J.O., Araya, Y.N. & Hughes, F.M.R. (2013). Quantifying soil hydrology to explain the development of vegetation at an ex-arable wetland restoration site. Wetlands, 33,311-320.

Stroh, P.A., Walker, K.J., Smith, S., Jefferson, R.J., Pinches, C. & Blackstock, T. (2019). Grassland plants of the British and Irish lowlands. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Durham.

Teunissen, B. (2019). The Oostvaardersplassen Fiasco. Isis 110(2) June 2019.

Tree, I. (2018). Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm. London: Picador.

Ustaoglu, E and Collier, M.J. 2018 Farmland abandonment in Europe: an overview of drivers, consequences, and assessment of the sustainability implications. Environmental Reviews 31st July 2018

Van Klink, R., Ruifrok, J.L. & Smit C. (2016). Rewilding with large herbivores: Direct effects and edge effects of grazing refuges on plant and invertebrate communities. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 234,81-97.

Vera, F.W.M., Bakker, E.S., & Olff, H. (2006). Large herbivores: missing partners of western European light-demanding tree and shrub species. In: Danell, K., Duncan, P., Bergström, R. & J. Pastor (Eds.). Large Herbivore Ecology, Ecosystem Dynamics and Conservation (pp. 203-231). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vullink, J.T., Drost, H.J & Jans, L. (2000). The influence of different grazing regimes on Phragmites and shrub vegetation in the well-drained zone of a eutrophic wetland. Applied Vegetation Science, 3,73-80.