Effects of excluding grazing animals from grassland on sugar limestone in Teesdale, England

  • Published source details Elkington T.T. (1981) Effects of excluding grazing animals from grassland on sugar limestone in Teesdale, England. Biological Conservation, 20, 25-35.


Teesdale (an upland region in northern England) supports a late-glacial relict flora. At one locality, Cronkley Fell (OS grid ref. NY8428), erosion of the limestone grassland, induced by sheep and European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus grazing, was of concern. It was therefore decided to erect a small experimental exclosure, primarily to test the effect on conservation of the flora, and particularly two nationally rare dwarf shrubs, dryas Dryas octopetala and hoary rockrose Helianthemum canum. The changes in the plant community over 12 years were monitored.

In 1966, a 12 x 15 m sheep-proof exclosure was erected. It was made rabbit-proof in 1968. In 1969, it was enclosed within a larger (130 × 140 m) exclosure, intended to be sheep- and rabbit-proof but because of problems with terrain and maintenance, rabbits could access and grazing intensity varied.
The original exclosure was therefore monitored (no sheep- or rabbit-grazing). A grid of 0.5 x 0.5 m squares was established. Species frequency was recorded in a 25 x 25 cm quadrat (sub-divided into 5-cm compartments) in each grid square. Percentage frequency presence of plants - all angiosperms, but only major bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and two conspicuous fruticose lichens (due limited available recording time) - was recorded in the 5-cm squares. Monitoring began in 1966, with some quadrats monitored each year until 1978 (excluding 1968, 1972 and 1977).
Quadrats established outside the original exclosure (as contols) were subsequently enclosed by the larger exclosure. A further four control quadrats were thus established in grassland (with Dryas) open to both sheep and rabbitsin 1971; these were monitored (usually in August-September) each year up to 1978.

Vegetation within the exclosure over the 12 years changed little. After being made rabbit-proof, vegetation became taller, although the most vigorous grass, blue moor-grass Sesleria caerulea, did not exceed 10 cm vegetative height. The grassland structure slowly became more open, mainly through a decline of sheep’s fescue Festuca ovina (generally dominant in all quadrats); bryophytes and fruticose lichens also declined. Flowering and seed production of most angiosperms greatly increased.

D.octopetala (in all quadrats where present) increased in frequency(e.g. in one grass-turf quadrat, 23% in 1966 to 50% 1978; in another of bare limestone sand and open vegetation, from 34 to 100%). In the controls it declined by about 50% in two quadrats due to erosion (in one due to rabbit scraping) but overall increased from 20% (1971) to 37% (1978). H.canum either fluctuated or gradually increased(e.g. in one grass-turf quadrat 12% in 1966 to 26% in 1978). In the controls it declined greatly from an average of 31% (1971) to 3% (1978).
Rabbit and sheep exclusion appeared beneficial for this upland plant community (growth restricted by harsh climate and limiting soil-nutrients) in contrast to reduction in species numbers after grazing removal frequently reported for lowland grasslands in the UK.
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