Gradients in vegetation cover, structure and species richness of Nama-Karoo shrublands in relation to distance from livestock watering points.
Gradients of animal impact known as piospheres tend to develop around artificial watering points, particularly in arid zones. Such grazing gradients represent a potential opportunity for differentiating the long-term effects of livestock activity from other environmental patterns. In this study, the impact of watering point provision on the plant cover, species richness and community structure of Karoo shrublands, South Africa, was investigated in the context of the evolutionary history and current grazing management practices of the region. The impacts of watering point provision were investigated by sampling plant cover and composition along transects placed at set distances, ranging from 10 m to 2200 m, from 11 watering points. Karoo vegetation cover and structure are relatively resilient to livestock grazing. Karoo plant diversity, as measured by species richness, evenness and dominance, was not as resilient. Twice as many species decreased as increased near watering points. The majority of species that decreased were regarded as being highly palatable to livestock. Heavy grazing, leading to death or repeated reproductive failure, is the most likely mechanism leading to the decline of such species. The highly disturbed area immediately adjacent to watering points was dominated by forbs and contained a large proportion of alien species. Adjacent to this was a zone dominated by widespread shrub species of medium to low palatability. Areas most distant from watering points contained a greater proportion of species known to be highly palatable to livestock. The ability of dominant Karoo shrubs to tolerate heavy grazing may have allowed rangeland managers to maintain stocking rates above that which can be tolerated by the majority of species but which are supported by a minority of grazing-tolerant species. Synthesis and applications. Highly palatable species are more abundant in areas distant from water points. Larger paddocks therefore provide a refuge for sensitive species that might otherwise be lost from the rangeland as a whole. Species that tend to occur away from watering points represent potentially useful indicators of grazing pressure. The use of these species as indicators of rangeland condition among landowners should be promoted.