How grazing management can maximize erosion resistance of salt marshes.
Combining natural saltmarsh habitats with conventional barriers can provide a sustainable and cost-effective alternative for fully engineered flood protection, provided that a minimal salt marsh width can be guaranteed for a long period. Hence, it is essential to understand both the key factors and management options driving the lateral erodibility/stability of salt marshes. We aimed to determine how salt marsh management (i.e. grazing by large vs. small grazers vs. artificial mowing), marsh elevation and marsh age affect soil stability (i.e. soil collapse) and intrinsic lateral erodibility of salt marshes (i.e. particle-by-particle detachment). Soil cores were collected in high and low marshes (above and below 0.5 m MHWL, respectively) of different ages. At these locations, we compared cores from grazed areas to cores inside grazer exclosures, with and without artificial mowing. All cores were exposed to waves in flumes to test their stability and lateral erodibility. All soil cores were characterized by a stable fine-grained layer deposited on top of readily erodible sand. The thickness of the fine-grained layer was a key parameter in reducing salt marsh instability (cliff collapse). This layer thickness increased with marsh age and at lower elevations, but decreased with cattle grazing due to compaction. The erosion resistance of the fine-grained layer increased with (a) large grazers that compacted the soil by trampling, (b) mowing that excluded soil-bioturbating species, and (c) grazing by small grazers that promoted vegetation types with higher root density. Synthesis and applications. Overall, marshes with thinner cohesive and/or fine-grained top layers are more sensitive to lateral erosion than marshes with deep cohesive soils, independently of the management. Grazing and artificial mowing can reduce the erodibility of fine-grained soils, making salt marshes more resilient to lateral erosion. However, compaction by large grazers simultaneously leads to thinner fine-grained layers and lower elevation, potentially leading to more inundation under sea-level rise. Hence, to effectively manage salt marshes to enhance their contribution to coastal protection, we recommend (a) moderate/rotational livestock grazing, avoiding high intensity grazing in sediment-poor systems sensitive to sea-level rise and (b) investigating measures to preserve small grazers.