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Oecologia. 2007 Jan;150(4):582-9. Epub 2006 Sep 21.

Contrasting effects of rabbit exclusion on nutrient availability and primary production in grasslands at different time scales.

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  • 1Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7PY, UK.


Herbivores influence nutrient cycling and primary production in terrestrial plant communities. However, both empirical and theoretical studies have indicated that the mechanisms by which herbivores influence nutrient availability, and thus their net effects on primary production, might differ between time scales. For a grassland in southeast England, we show that the effects of rabbits on primary production change over time in a set of grazed plots paired with exclosures ranging from 0 to 14 years in age. Herbivore exclusion decreased net aboveground primary production (APP) in the short term, but increased APP in the long term. APP was closely correlated with N mineralization rates in both grazed and ungrazed treatments, and accumulation of litter within the grazing exclosures led to higher N mineralization rates in exclosures in the long run. Rabbit grazing did not influence litter quality. The low contrast in palatability between species and the presence of grazing-tolerant plants might prevent rabbits from favoring unpalatable plant species that decompose slowly, in contrast to results from other ecosystems. Our results indicate that it is essential to understand the effects on N cycling in order to predict the effect of rabbit grazing on APP. Rabbits might decrease N mineralization and APP in the long term by increasing losses of N from grasslands.

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