The role of sheep grazing on vegetation change in upland mires removed from livestock farming and surrounded by conifer plantation was investigated with a grazing trial at Butterburn Flow in northern England. Paired grazed and ungrazed plots from central and peripheral locations were compared over 14 yr. Vegetation data from 34 mires in Kielder Forest provided an ordination framework within which vegetation trends were investigated. A gradient from dry moorland/hummock to wet mire/hollow vegetation dominated this framework and may reflect hydrological variability and structural vegetation differences between the mires.
Some species were significantly affected by change in grazing intensity and there were differences between the edge and the centre of the mire. Overall vegetation change depended upon the grazing management and the position of the plots such that the removal of sheep grazing decreased the cover of species typical of wet ombrotrophic conditions, but only at the periphery of the mire. The vegetation in one plot became very similar to that of mires elsewhere in Kielder Forest where sheep were removed several decades ago.
Cessation of grazing on upland mires is likely to lead to slow structural and species change in vegetation at the mire edge with a long-term loss of ombrotrophic species. The nature conservation significance of these changes will depend upon whether or not management objectives target natural conditions or wish to maximize ombrotrophic vegetation. The context of external factors such as climate and pollution may, however, be more important in determining site condition on the wettest mires.