Long-Term Increase in Aboveground Carbon Stocks Following Exclusion of Grazers and Forest Establishment in an Alpine Ecosystem
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionEcosystems (New York. Print). 2014, 17 (7), 1138-1150. 10.1007/s10021-014-9784-2
Ecosystem stores of carbon are a key component in the global carbon cycle. Many studies have examined the impact of climate change on ecosystem carbon storage, but few have investigated the impact of land-use change and herbivory. However, land-use change is a major aspect of environmental change, and livestock grazing is the most extensive land use globally. In this study, we combine a grazing exclosure experiment and a natural experiment to test the impact of grazer exclusion on vegetation dynamics and ecosystem carbon stores in the short term (12-year exclosures), and the long term (islands inaccessible to livestock), in a heavily grazed mountain region in Norway. Following long-term absence of sheep, birch forest was present. The grazing-resistant grass Nardus stricta, dominated under long-term grazing, whilst the selected grass Deschampsiaflexuosa and herb species dominated the vegetation layer in the long-term absence of sheep. The established birch forest led to vegetation carbon stocks being higher on the islands (0.56 kg C m−2 on the islands compared to 0.18 kg C m−2 where grazed) and no difference in soil carbon stocks. In the short-term exclusion of sheep, there were minor differences in carbon stocks reflecting the longer term changes. These results show that aboveground carbon stocks are higher in the long-term absence of sheep than in the continual presence of high sheep densities, associated with a vegetation state change between tundra and forest. The reduction of herbivore populations can facilitate forest establishment and increase aboveground carbon stocks, however, the sequestration rate is low.