Plant and Soil

, Volume 268, Issue 1, pp 135–149 | Cite as

Effects of heterogeneous habitat use by cattle on nutrient availability and litter decomposition in soils of an Alpine pasture

  • Sabine Güsewell
  • Peter L. Jewell
  • Peter J. Edwards


Grazing by free-ranging cattle on Alpine pastures in southern Switzerland creates sharp contrasts in plant species composition between small ’camp areas’, which are grazed intensely and receive most cattle excreta, and surrounding pasture dominated by Nardus stricta, which is only lightly grazed. We hypothesised that these contrasts are maintained by positive feedbacks related to nutrient availability in soil, in that (a) plant material with rapid decomposition and nutrient release decomposes in camp areas and (b) litter decomposition is further stimulated by enhanced nutrient availability in soil. We compared nutrient availability at three camp areas with that in surrounding Nardus vegetation and investigated how the decomposition of plant material from both vegetation types responds to nutrient availability in soil, both in the field (during 14 weeks) and in the laboratory (during 4, 10, and 16 weeks). At all three field sites P availability was significantly enhanced in camp areas, whereas differences in N availability were inconsistent among the three sites. Laboratory incubations indicated that microbial activity after the addition of labile C (cellulose) was limited by P availability in the Nardus vegetation but not in camp areas. The camp-area plant substrate decomposed much faster (81.5% vs. 27.1% ash-free dry mass loss in the field) and released more N and P than the Nardus substrate, which tended to immobilise soil nutrients. However, the decomposition rate of neither substrate was influenced by nutrient availability in soil, both in the field (comparing camp areas and Nardus vegetation) and in the laboratory (comparing incubations with and without N or P fertilisation). We conclude that the contrasting quality of plant substrates contributes to the greater nutrient availability in camp areas (feedback a) but that the latter does not influence the decomposition of in situ plant material (feedback b) because the latter is not nutrient-limited.


camp areas decomposition grazing litter Nardus stricta nutrient availability immobilisation nutrient limitation 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ågren, G I, Bosatta, E, Magill, A H 2001Combining theory and experiment to understand effects of inorganic nitrogen on litter decompositionOecologia1289498Google Scholar
  2. Arnone, J A,III 1997Indices of plant N availability in an alpine grassland under elevated atmospheric CO2Plant Soil1906166Google Scholar
  3. Austrheim, G, Eriksson, O 2001Plant species diversity and grazing in the Scandinavian mountains – Patterns and processes at different spatial scalesEcography24683695Google Scholar
  4. Bätzing W 2003 Die Alpen – Geschichte und Zukunft einer europäischen Kulturlandschaft. C.H.Beck, München.Google Scholar
  5. Berendse, F 1994Litter decomposability – A neglected component of plant fitnessJ. Ecol82187190Google Scholar
  6. Berg, B, McClaugherty, C, Johansson, M-B 1993Litter mass-loss rates in late stages of decomposition at some climatically and nutritionally different pine sites. Long-term decomposition in a Scots pine forestCan. J. Bot71680692Google Scholar
  7. Berry, N R 2000Production efficiency and nutrient cycling of Brown Swiss dairy and Scottish Highland sucklers on high altitude pastures under varied feeding conditionsSwiss Federal Institute of TechnologyZürichPh.D. Thesis Nr. 13727Google Scholar
  8. Blaser, P, Kernebeek, P, Tebbens, L, Breemen, N, Luster, J 1997Cryptopodzolic soils in SwitzerlandEur. J. Soil Sci48411423Google Scholar
  9. Bloemhof, H S, Berendse, F 1995Simulation of the decomposition and nitrogen mineralization of aboveground plant material in two unfertilized grassland ecosystemsPlant Soil177157173Google Scholar
  10. Bosatta, E, Ågren, G I 1991Theoretical analysis of carbon and nutrient interactions in soils under energy-limited conditionsSoil Sc. Soc. Am. J55728733Google Scholar
  11. Bosatta, E, Berendse, F 1984Energy or nutrient regulation of decomposition: implications for the mineralization-immobilisation response to perturbationsSoil Biol. Biochem166367Google Scholar
  12. Bryant, D M, Holland, E A, Seastedt, T R, Walker, M D 1998Analysis of litter decomposition in an alpine tundraCan. J. Bot7612951304Google Scholar
  13. Chauhan, B S, Stewart, J W B, Paul, E A 1981Effect of labile inorganic phosphate status and organic carbon additions on the microbial uptake of phosphorus in soilsCan. J. Soil Sc61373385Google Scholar
  14. Cheshire, M V, Chapmann, S J 1996Influence of the N and P status of plant material and of added N and P on the mineralisation of C from 14C-labelled ryegrass in soilBiol. Fertil. Soils21166170Google Scholar
  15. Coûteaux, M, Bottner, P, Berg, B 1995Litter decomposition, climate and litter qualityTREE106366Google Scholar
  16. Mazancourt, C, Loreau, M, Abbadie, L 1998Grazing optimization and nutrient cycling: When do herbivores enhance plant production?Ecology7922422252Google Scholar
  17. Ellenberg, H 1996Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen 5.AuflEugen UlmerStuttgartGoogle Scholar
  18. Fox, J F, Cleve, K 1983Relationships between cellulose decomposition, Jenny’s k, forest-floor nitrogen, and soil temperature in Alaskan taiga forestCan. J. For. Res13789794Google Scholar
  19. Frank, D A, Groffman, P M 1998Ungulate vs. landscape control of soil C and N processes in grasslands of Yellowstone National ParkEcology7922292241Google Scholar
  20. Frank, D A, Groffman, P M, Evans, R D, Tracy, B F 2000Ungulate stimulation of nitrogen cycling and retention in Yellowstone Park grasslandsOecologia123116121Google Scholar
  21. Frank, D A, Kuns, M M, Guido, D R 2002Consumer control of grassland plant productionEcology83602606Google Scholar
  22. Gander, A, Rockmann, A, Strehler, C, Güsewell, S 2003Habitat use by Scottish Highland cattle in a lakeshore wetlandBull. Geobot. Inst. ETH69316Google Scholar
  23. Guitian, R, Bardgett, R D 2000Plant and soil microbial responses to defoliation in temperate semi-natural grasslandPlant Soil220271277Google Scholar
  24. Hamilton, E W, Frank, D A 2001Can plants stimulate soil microbes and their own nutrient supply? Evidence from a grazing tolerant grassEcology8223972402Google Scholar
  25. Haynes, R J, Williams, P H 1999Influence of stock camping behaviour on the soil microbiological and biochemical properties of grazed pastoral soilsBiol. Fertil. Soils28253258Google Scholar
  26. Hobbie, S E 2000Interactions between litter lignin and soil nitrogen availability during leaf litter decomposition in a Hawaiian montane forestEcosystems3484494Google Scholar
  27. Hobbie, S E, Vitousek, P M 2000Nutrient limitation of decomposition in Hawaiian forestsEcology8118671877Google Scholar
  28. Holland, J N, Chenge, W, Crossley, D A 1996Herbivore-induced changes in plant carbon allocation: assessment of below-ground C fluxes using carbon-14Oecologia1078794Google Scholar
  29. Hunt, H W, Ingham, E R, Coleman, R, Elliott, E T, Reid, C P P 1988Nitrogen limitation of production and decomposition in prairie, mountain meadow, and pine forestEcology6910091016Google Scholar
  30. Jewell, P 2002Impact of cattle grazing upon the vegetation of an Alpine pastureSwiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)Zürich, SwitzerlandPh.D. thesisGoogle Scholar
  31. Kooijman, A M, Smit, A 2001Grazing as a measure to reduce nutrient availability and plant productivity in acid dune grasslands and pine forests in The NetherlandsEcol. Eng176377Google Scholar
  32. Kurka, A-M, Starr, M, Heikinheimo, M, Salkinoja-Salonen, M 2000Decomposition of cellulose strips in relation to climate, litterfall nitrogen, phoshporus and C/N ratio in natural boreal forestsPlant Soil21991101Google Scholar
  33. McIntire, E J B, Hik, D S 2002Grazing history versus current grazing: leaf demography and compensatory growth of three alpine plants in response to a native herbivore (Ochotona collaris)J. Ecol90348359Google Scholar
  34. Milchunas, D G, Lauenroth, W K 1993Quantitative effects of grazing on vegetation and soils over a global range of environmentsEcol. Monogr63327366Google Scholar
  35. Olofsson, J, Oksanen, L 2002Role of litter decomposition for the increased primary production in areas heavily grazed by reindeer: a litterbag experimentOikos96507515Google Scholar
  36. Parton, W J, Schimel, D S, Cole, C V, Ojima, D S 1987Analysis of factors controlling soil organic matter levels in Great Plain GrasslandsSoil Sc. Soc. Am. J5111731179Google Scholar
  37. Poorter, H, Jong, R 1999A comparison of specific leaf area, chemical composition and leaf construction costs of field plants from 15 habitats differing in productivityNew Phytol143163176Google Scholar
  38. Pratt, R M, Putman, R J, Ekins, J R, Edwards, P J 1986Use of habitat by free-ranging cattle and ponies in the New Forest, Southern EnglandJ. Appl. Ecol23539557Google Scholar
  39. Proulx, M, Mazumder, A 1998Reversal of grazing impact on plant species richness in nutrient-poor vs. nutrient-rich ecosystemsEcology7925812592Google Scholar
  40. Reinhard M, Bächlin R, Graeter P, Lehner P and Spicher A 1962 Geologischer Atlas der Schweiz, 9. Ed. Kümmerly & Frey, Bern.Google Scholar
  41. Ritchie, M E, Tilman, D, Knops, J M H 1998Herbivore effects on plant and nitrogen dynamics in oak savannaEcology79165177Google Scholar
  42. Roberts, J D, Rowland, A P 1998Cellulose fractionation in decomposition studies using detergent fibre pre-treatment methodsComm. Soil Sci. Plant Anal2921092118Google Scholar
  43. Seagle, S W, McNaughton, S J, Ruess, R W 1992Simulated effects of grazing on soil nitrogen and mineralization in contrasting Serengeti grasslandsEcology7311051123Google Scholar
  44. Shariff, A R, Biondini, M E, Grygiel, C E 1994Grazing intensity effects on litter decomposition and soil nitrogen mineralizationJ. Range Manage47444449Google Scholar
  45. Smit, A, Kooijman, A M 2001Impact of grazing on the input of organic matter and nutrients to the soil in a grass-encroached Scots pine forestForest Ecol. Man14299107Google Scholar
  46. Tessier, J T, Raynal, D Y 2003Use of nitrogen to phosphorus ratios in plant tissue as an indicator of nutrient limitation and nitrogen saturationJ. Appl. Ecol40523534Google Scholar
  47. Tracy, B F, Frank, D A 1998Herbivore influence on soil microbial biomass and nitrogen mineralization in a northern grassland ecosystem: Yellowstone National ParkOecologia114556562Google Scholar
  48. Krift, T A J, Berendse, F 2002Root life spans of four grass species from habitats differing in nutrient availabilityFunct. Ecol16198203Google Scholar
  49. Wijnen, H J, Wal, R, Bakker, J P 1999The impact of herbivores on nitrogen mineralization rate: consequences for salt-marsh successionOecologia118225231Google Scholar
  50. Vance, E D, Chapin, F S,III 2001Substrate limitations to microbial activity in taiga forest floorsSoil Biol. Biochem33173188Google Scholar
  51. Wardle, D A, Barker, G M, Bonner, K I, Nicholson, K S 1998Can comparative approaches based on plant ecophysiological traits predict the nature of biotic interactions and individual plant species effects in ecosystems?J. Ecol86405420Google Scholar
  52. Wilson, J B, Agnew, A D Q 1992Positive-feedback switches in plant communitiesAdv. Ecol. Res23263336Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sabine Güsewell
    • 1
  • Peter L. Jewell
    • 1
  • Peter J. Edwards
    • 1
  1. 1.Geobotanisches Institut ETH ZürichZürichSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations