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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
Article

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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

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Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

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

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