Domestic herbivores' effect on vegetation is spatially heterogeneous, being one of the major causes of forage resources degradation. It has been proposed that paddock size controls grazing impact's heterogeneity because as size decreases, herbivores' utilization is spatially more even. However, this has not been critically evaluated in commercial-scale paddocks isolating paddock size effects from other factors influencing the interaction between herbivores and vegetation. Here we assessed how paddock size mediates the heterogeneity of continuous sheep grazing effects on vegetation, at constant stocking rate in Patagonian steppes. We selected three small (ca. 110 ha) and three large (ca. 1 100 ha) paddocks dominated by the same plant community. All paddocks contained a single watering point and presented similar shape. Total and specific plant cover, vegetation patchiness, population size distribution of dominant grass species, plant morphology, and sheep feces density were estimated at increasing distances from watering points. Relationships between vegetation variables and distance from the watering point were in most cases asymptotic exponential, although responses generally differed between small and large paddocks. In small paddocks, vegetation variables mostly reached a plateau at a short distance from the watering point (∼200 m). Instead, in large paddocks, the changes in vegetation variables were larger and more gradual, and reached a plateau at much greater distances (∼2 000 m). Vegetation heterogeneity throughout the paddock was lower in small than large paddocks. Our findings suggest that paddock size mediates the spatial pattern of grazing effects on vegetation. Reducing paddock size decreases grazing impacts spatial heterogeneity, which makes plant-animal interactions more predictable and might improve forage utilization efficiency.
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Vol. 71 • No. 4