Spiny shrubs protect non-defended plants against herbivores. Therefore, they play a role for the diversity in grazed ecosystems. While the importance of these keystone nurse shrubs is presently recognized, little is known about the factors controlling them. This knowledge is required to understand the functioning of grazed ecosystems and for sustainable management.
We studied effects of cattle and rabbits on clonal expansion of Prunus spinosa in two ancient wood-pastures in the Netherlands. At each site we set up five blocks in grassland perpendicular to the edges of mature Prunus thickets, each block containing three herbivore treatments: (1) open-to-cattle-and-rabbits, (2) open to rabbits, cattle excluded, (3) cattle and rabbits excluded. We monitored the number and volume of Prunus ramets from 1998 to 2000 and again in 2003, 3 years after exclosure-removal to restore grazing.
For 1998–2000 ramet volume, but not ramet number, differed between treatments. Ramet volume was highest when both cattle and rabbits were excluded. Ramet volume did not differ between grazing by rabbits or cattle and rabbits combined, indicating that rabbits alone may be as effective in inhibiting clonal expansion as cattle and rabbits combined. Three years after exclosure-removal ramet number and volume had increased in all treatments. Number of ramets remained unaffected by (former) treatments. Ramet volume remained highest in the former cattle-plus-rabbits exclusion treatment, differing significantly from the ‘open-to-cattle-and-rabbits’ treatment. So, once successfully established during herbivore absence, further expansion is not prevented by cattle and rabbit grazing.
This study shows that vertebrate herbivory controls the keystone nurse-shrub in wood-pastures: combined cattle and rabbit grazing, and notably rabbits alone, inhibit expansion. Temporary herbivore absence allows expansion of ramets, which persists after herbivore-reappearance. Sustainable management of wood-pastures should allow spatial-temporal fluctuations of herbivore densities, leading to increased vegetation structure and associated biodiversity.