Pastoral systems are regarded as complex social-ecological systems with components that interact and change over a range of spatial and temporal scales. As such, herd mobility has traditionally been used to respond to the dynamic nature of these systems. However, mobile pastoral systems around the world are becoming more constrained and increasingly fragmented with important implications for herd mobility. This study assessed the spatial distribution of 256 herds and their mobility patterns over a decade in the 10 villages that comprise the spatially constrained Leliefontein pastoral area in South Africa. We developed a hierarchical model of rangeland use, which showed that several stratified and connected socioeconomic, climatic, and environmental factors determined the spatial and temporal use of grazing areas in this 192 000-ha semiarid environment. At the highest level of use, access to the Leliefontein pastoral area is formally regulated. At the next level, the place of residence of herd owners largely defined which village commons was used by their livestock. At the third level of rangeland use, the wealth status of owners determined where in relation to human settlements their herds were located. At the lowest level in the hierarchy, the locations of water and croplands delineated seasonal grazing areas and the movement of stockposts. These stratified factors, together with the overall variability in grazing resource availability and the different decision making processes involved, resulted in high flexibility and diversity of herd mobility patterns at the lowest level of rangeland use. This, in turn, ensured heterogeneity in resource use over a range of spatial and temporal scales. It was concluded that policies should embrace the complexity of the pastoral system and enable the adaptive management of herds. This could reduce the level of vulnerability experienced by pastoralists to climate variability and wider societal change.
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