Comparing the impact of a grazing regime with European bison versus one with free-ranging cattle on coastal dune vegetation in the Netherlands.
Woody plant encroachment has increased across the globe and threatens biodiversity associated with open habitats. In order to prevent or reduce woody encroachment, conservation managers across Europe introduce large mammalian herbivores. While up to recently, managers were mostly using free-ranging domestic cattle and horses for this, there is an increasing interest in the use of European bison for nature management. However, we lack studies that compare the impact of these different grazers on vegetation. We report results from a unique grazing pilot in the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland, a heterogeneous coastal dune landscape in the Netherlands, where European bison, horses, and cattle were introduced to reverse the encroachment of grass and shrub species. We present results of an 8-year study on the development of woody and grassy vegetation on fixed transects in three different grazing areas within the national park; one area with European bison and horses, one area with cattle and horses, and one area where these large grazers were excluded. In all three areas, rabbit, fallow deer, and roe deer were present. Over time, we observed strong reductions in the vitality of several woody species, such as spindle tree, and this decline was similar across all areas. Grass height and cover also declined and the proportion of herbs increased in all three grazing areas in similar ways. However, the type of herbivore use (debarking, foraging on buds, branches) of several woody species differed significantly among areas. For instance, maple tree was only debarked in the E. bison area, while hawthorn branches were eaten significantly more in the cattle than in the bison area. Due to differences in herbivore densities among areas, it was difficult to draw strong conclusions on how the different herbivore species differed in their impact, but, importantly, we found that grazing regimes with bison can lead to as strong effects on vegetation structure and composition as grazing regimes with cattle. This is an important result since certain conditions, such as legal aspects, may motivate managers to introduce a wild large grazer rather than a domesticated one.