Maintaining Disturbance-Dependent Habitats

Laetitia M. Navarro, Vânia Proença, Jed O. Kaplan and Henrique M. Pereira

Abstract Natural disturbances, or the lack thereof, contributed to shape Earth's landscapes and maintain its diversity of ecosystems. In particular, natural fire dynamics and herbivory by wild megafauna played an essential role in defining European landscapes in pre-agricultural times. The advent of agriculture and the development of complex societies exacerbated the decline of European megafauna, leading to local and global extinctions of many species, and substantial alterations of fire regimes. Those natural phenomena were over time gradually and steadily replaced by anthropogenic disturbances. Yet, for the first time since the Black Death epidemic, agricultural land-use is decreasing in Europe. Less productive marginal areas have been progressively abandoned as crop and livestock production has become concentrated on the most fertile and easier to cultivate land. With little or no substitute for the anthropogenic disturbances associated with these abandoned agricultural practices, there is growing concern that disturbance-dependent communities may disappear, along with their associated ecosystem services. Nonetheless, rewilding can give an opportunity to tackle the issue of farmland abandonment. This chapter first depicts the historical European landscapes and the role of two natural disturbances, herbivory and fire. The importance of disturbance-dependent habitats is then highlighted by drawing attention to the alpha and beta diversity that they sustain. Finally, the chapter investigates options for rewilding abandoned land to maintain disturbancedependent and self-sustained habitats for which we suggest active restoration in the early stages of abandonment. This may be achieved via prescribed burning and support or introduction, when necessary, of populations of wild mammals.

Keywords Disturbances Fire regime Disturbance-dependent habitats Herbivory Reintroduction Prescribed burning


Disturbance can be defined as “a discrete event that disrupts the structure of an ecosystem's community or population, and changes resources availability or the physical environment” (Turner 1998). Natural disturbances (i.e., not deriving from human-induced processes) are an essential process of ecosystem dynamics. Among other roles, disturbances contribute to the maintenance of ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling (Attiwill 1994; Turner 1998). More important than considering the impact of a disturbance event per se is to consider the regime underlying disturbances. The disturbance regime determines the landscape (Turner 1998), and is characterized by the disturbance frequency and return interval, spatial extent, intensity (energy flow per area per time) and severity (magnitude of impact).

For millennia, humans have modified ecosystems with varying intensity and over various spatial extents. These anthropogenic changes imply a modification in both the natural communities and the natural processes that cause disturbance. In particular, human activities often cause the disruption of natural regimes, either directly (e.g., livestock grazing, fire suppression) or indirectly (e.g., landscape fragmentation, introduction of exotic invasives or pests), or introduce new types of disturbance, such as pollution. Human activities can also mimic natural disturbance regimes and affect biotic communities in a similar way (Attiwill 1994). For example, the maintenance of traditional landscapes and the species-rich communities associated with them is implicitly linked with continuous ecosystem disturbance imposed by human activities.

If the regime of anthropogenic disturbances is altered, by a reduction or complete withdrawal of human activities, there is a concern that disturbance-dependent habitats and the associated communities may not be maintained. In particular, the maintenance of extensive farming systems in Europe is currently at stake due to farmland abandonment, which raises concerns about the potential effects of landuse changes on biodiversity (Rey Benayas et al. 2007). The trajectory of ecological succession after abandonment depends on several factors, but the probable shift from a moderate disturbance regime (i.e. traditional landscape mosaic) to a low or high disturbance regime is associated with the risk of habitat homogenization and decline of species richness. Thus, one of the challenges of rewilding abandoned farmland is to contribute to the maintenance of disturbance-dependent habitats.

Passive regeneration following farmland abandonment can be a long and complex process, specific to each area (see Chap. 1). It depends on the cultivation history, the time since abandonment, the availability of a “natural” seed bank, the proximity of sources of populations of species, and the requirements for natural disturbances, which will all take part in the self-sustained functioning of the restored ecosystem. When active restoration is needed, the choice of the baseline is also important (Corlett 2012), and in this regard, open land maintained quasi exclusively by (traditional) agricultural practices is a rather recent norm.

In this chapter, we first depict the European landscapes through time, from premodern human settlement to the progressive advent of agriculture and finally to the recent trends of agricultural abandonment. We then present two major disturbances: i.e. herbivory and fire, from both a natural history perspective and a restoration approach. We also look into the consequences of those disturbances on alpha and beta diversity levels in the landscape.

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