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University of Stellenbosch (2003)

Vegetation, soil and grazing relationships in the Middelburg District of the Eastern Cape

Hendricks, Neile Oliver

Titre : Vegetation, soil and grazing relationships in the Middelburg District of the Eastern Cape

Auteur : Hendricks, Neile Oliver

Université de soutenance : University of Stellenbosch

Grade : Master of Science (MSc) 2003

Arid and semi-arid rangelands of the Nama-Karoo Biome are believed to have changed considerably since the arrival of domestic livestock in the veld. Severe grazing pressure is considered to be one of the prime factors responsible for the perceived degradation of vegetation and concurrent soil degradation. To understand the process of degradation and to make further recommendations for future veld restoration, a large-scale project was undertaken in the Eastern Cape. This project focused on the role that landscape heterogeneity plays in providing refuges for plant species. The key question asked in this project was : What role do these hypothetically less grazed mesas play in the conservation of rangelands in the Nama-Karoo of the Eastern Cape ? This study, a component of the larger project, investigated grazing and soil landscape gradients on- and off- the three mesas (Tafelberg, Folminkskop and Buffelskop) in the Middelburg District of the Eastern Cape, South Africa and the possible influences that they might have on the veld. The flats surrounding the mesas were mostly used as grazing camps in contrast to the plateaux of the mesas, which had varied levels of accessibility. In the absence of direct observations, the primary objective of the study was to test the differential dung pellet abundance and impact of animals on different parts of the landscape. As such, dung pellet counts in this study were correlated with surrogates of soil physical properties including bare ground, trampling and litter cover. Variation in dung pellet density was found at the different habitats (flats, slopes and plateaux) of all mesas. The flats to the north-eastern and south-western of Tafelberg mesa were found to be more heavily utilized by livestock and herbivores, while the plateaux and southeastern slopes of Folminkskop and Buffelskop were also utilized by grazers. The Tafelberg mesa was the only study site that was consistent with the hypothesis which stated that grazers would be less concentrated on the plateau compared to the surrounding flats due to its inaccessibility, whilst the high mean dung pellet density on the plateaux of the smaller Folminkskop and Buffelskop mesas due to easier access contradicted the original hypothesis. It appeared that dung pellet density did not clearly turn out to be an indicator of habitat use in this study, but showed where slopes and plateaux were accessible to herbivores, as in the case for the Buffelskop mesa, a higher abundance of dung pellets were found suggesting that higher intensities of habitat use took place. During this study a strong pattern was observed of bare soil patches on the flats surrounding the mesas. There was a decrease in percentage of bare soil along the gradient of the three mesas with a high percentage of bare soil on the plateaux of the mesas. A significant correlation was found between bare soil and dung pellet density. However, the plateaux of Folminkskop and Buffelskop had a high percentage of bare soil compared to the plateau of Tafelberg mesa. Farmers mainly used these smaller mesas as grazing camps for their livestock and herbivores. A positive correlation between bare soil and litter cover of the different habitats was evident in this study. A lower percentage of litter cover at these sites was associated with a high percentage of bare soil. Litter is very important in a healthy vegetation community in terms of nutrient cycling and fertile patches. A detailed assessment of soil chemical and physical properties would reveal, firstly, if vegetation change is better explained by soil or grazing effects and, secondly, if changes in soil have resulted from land use. Differences in macro- and micro-site variations between open-canopy (between shrubs) and closed-canopy (under shrubs) sites for each habitat were determined to differentiate between local scales due to land use and landscape scales due to geomorphology. The results suggested that carbon, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, copper and manganese levels in soils at landscape scale better explain vegetation changes between habitats. At a local scale (open- and closed-canopy sites) land use was responsible for little changes in soils. Changes in only soil potassium, zinc and boron elements were actually a consequence of local scales due to land use. The soil nutrient content on the slopes appeared to be intermediate between the flats and plateaux of all three mesas. It appeared that dolerite capped Tafelberg and Folminkskop mesas had high silt and clay content, while Buffelskop (sandstone) mesa had a lower silt and clay content. Consequently, the texture and parent material of the soils contributed to the variations in soil nutrient composition between these mesas. High infiltration rate together with low nutrient content on the flats clearly showed that these flats, surrounding the mesas were degraded. The high infiltration rates were caused by high activity by livestock and other indigenous animals on the flats which breaks the surface crusting of bare soil and improve infiltration. It was concluded that high levels of grazing at these sites have also altered the textural and soil properties. Endozoochory dispersal and the deposition of dung pellets in areas of small patch disturbances play an important role in veld regeneration in degraded areas. Dung pellets collected from permanent study sites on the southeastern and northwestern flats and slopes, and all the study sites on the plateau of Tafelberg mesa, was sown in seedling trays, watered and monitored for seedling germination. Species list were then compared to below-ground soil seed bank data and above-ground vegetation data collected by other researchers at the same permanent study sites. Higher seedling percentages were recorded from dung pellets collected on the flats than on the plateau. A total of sixteen species were found to germinate in dung pellets collected on the flats compared to ten species germinating in dung pellets collected on the slopes and two species on the plateau of Tafelberg mesa. The seeds that germinated represent a variety of palatable grasses and shrub species. Aristida sp., Eragrostis bicolor, Eragrostis ch/orome/as and Eragrostis obtusa were palatable grasses recorded for dung pellets collected on the flats. Of the species recorded, Aristida sp., Chenopodium sp. and Pentzia sp. were found in dung pellets but were not recorded in parallel soil seedbank and vegetation studies. Successful restoration of veld conditions requires strict grazing management practices. Germination of seed in dung pellets might be considered to be a valuable means of indicating restoration potential and rangeland conditions for the identification of both degraded and conservation worthy areas. With appropriate land management skills and restoration measures, these challenges can be constructively and creatively faced.


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