The biodiversity of species-rich semi-natural meadows is declining across Europe due to ceased management. In this study we aimed to find out how successfully the local species richness of an overgrown semi-natural mesic meadow could be restored by sheep grazing after a long period of abandonment. The cover of vascular plant species in grazed plots and ungrazed exclosures was studied for five years and the responses of different functional plant groups were followed (herbs vs grasses, tall vs short species, species differing in flowering time, species representing different Grime's CSR strategies and species indicative of rich vs poor soil). Grazing increased species number by nearly 30%. On grazed plots the litter cover practically disappeared, favouring small herbs such as Rhinanthus minor, Ranunculus acris, Trifolium pratense and the grass Agrostis capillaris. Grazing decreased the cover of the late flowering tall herb Epilobium angustifolium but had no effect on the abundance of the early flowering tall herbs Anthriscus sylvestris or Geranium sylvaticum. We suggest that to succeed in restoration it is useful to determine the responses of different functional plant groups to grazing. Grassland managers need this information to optimize the methods and timing of management used in restoration. Additional management practices, such as mowing, may be needed in mesic meadows to decrease the dominance of tall species. The availability of propagules seemed to restrict further increase of species richness in our study area.
Abbreviations: GRI = Grazing response index; NMDS = Non-metric MultiDimensional Scaling.
Nomenclature: Hämet-Ahti et al. (1998).