On a misty autumn morning, while I was roaming through Flanders fields, I met some very fierce-looking sheep.
The look on their face, combined with the atmosphere created by the autumn fog, made me chuckle: they looked very smug and acted like the true definition of a badass.
‘Baby, don’t herd me, don’t herd me no more.’
And then I realised they deserved to have that look on their face, especially when viewed from my research’s point of view. For the plants in a grazed meadow, the grazers are their gods, and their hungry mouths define who will survive and who will not.
Grazers keep the vegetation short, and they create gaps with their hoofs. They keep the vegetation open as they prevent evolution towards the next successional stages, in which shrubs and trees inevitably take over. They thus provide good example of disturbance (an important part of my PhD, on which I will publish a paper soon).
Vegetation dominated by grazers will have a totally different species composition, where species that know how to handle these kinds of disturbances experience a strong advantage. Many grasses for example have their meristems (the important part of the plant where all growth is regulated) moved from the top of the plant to lower parts (in the nodes in the stem).
This means grazers (and the lawn mower for that matter) will mostly not hurt grasses that much, as they will only remove the replaceable parts of the plant and not the ‘expensive’ part that takes care of the growth.
At the moment, grazers have not been very well represented in my research, although reindeer are very important in our study system in the north of Sweden. The impressive looking sheep of the Belgian autumn however reminded me to keep the grazers and their important ecological role at least in mind.