For hundreds of years, the slopes in the lower Saale river valley (Saxony-Anhalt) between Halle (Saale) and Könnern have been grazed by sheep and goats. This traditional land use combined with specific climatic and varying edaphic conditions resulted in open landscapes dominated by exceptionally species-rich dry grasslands with very few shrubs and trees.
Some of the characteristic plant communities are listed as natural habitat types in Annex I of the European Habitats Directive. The member states guarantee to maintain or restore a favorable conservation status of the natural habitat types (Art. 3).
Due to socio-economic changes in the past, sheep and goat husbandry declined considerably leading to an abandonment of the pastures in the region. Currently, the former species-rich dry grasslands are heavily endangered by grass and shrub invasion. The formerly very attractive and highly diverse cultural landscape will disappear if no counter-active measures can be implemented in the near future.
Landscape conservation by grazing goats - The pilot project
In order to maintain a poor lawn, care must be adapted to the original use. Extreme steep slopes, which are also often isolated by wood bars, are only conditionally suitable for grazing with sheep, so that many of these locations cannot be integrated into existing trift pasture concepts. Organization-intensive and high-cost manual de-bushing measures (costs of up to € 8,500 / ha, sometimes significantly more) can, as an initial measure, push back the wood cover. Without integrating the areas into subsequent usage concepts, however, there will be a high level of after-care expenditure due to the need for repeated maintenance cuts in the following years.
The ability of the goat to cover a large part of its feed requirements through woody material was rated negatively for a long time. In the recent past, however, goats have gained in importance in biotope maintenance due to their grazing behavior and their suitability for rough terrain.
Against this background, the goat project funded by the EAFRD (European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development), the state of Saxony-Anhalt and the Heidehof Foundation was initiated. The first grazing areas in the Lower Saale Valley were set up in 2007. Currently, 16 areas in the Lower Saale Valley are grazed with goats, some together with sheep.
The areas are characterized by heavily bushed structures in some areas, some of which are extremely steep. The areas are located in Natura 2000 areas and still have a species-rich dry grassland flora and fauna, which is acutely threatened by grassing and shrubbery.
Central tasks in the current project phase as a sub-project to improve the conservation status of open land habitat types are:
- Conservation-related success controls (especially vegetation)
- Investigations on the spatial and feeding behavior as well as the condition of the grazing animals,
- Supervision of the managers and integration of further grazing areas,
- Public relation.
The following goals were expressed for the grazing areas:
- conservation of natural habitat types and endangered species of flora and fauna,
- reduction of shrub coverage,
- reduction of the litter layer and grass species,
- establishing cooperations with local farmers and facilitation of goat husbandry on suitable grazing sites by financial support for setting up pastures and management of sites,
- development of suitable management strategies for each area based on monitoring results.
Project aims 2017-2020:
Evaluation of ongoing management measures (goat and mixed pasturing) on small species-rich dry grassland sites at the example of the Lower Saale Valley and knowledge transfer to state-wide practice (book project Guideline for Goat Grazing, Workshop)
Within the framework of this subproject, success assessment of established goat pastures in the Lower Saale Valley will be continued. Due to years without management, these sites were characterised by severe deficits (grass invasion, thatching, shrub encroachment), which had resulted in pronouncedly degraded habitats and the high risk of the extinction of local populations of endangered species. Although there are positive developments with regard to decreasing shrub cover on goat pastures in the Lower Saale Valley, many woody species show a great regeneration potential (mainly through adventitious shoots). A continuous monitoring is also necessary because rotating goat grazing is increasingly applied for the restauration of shrub-encroached dry grasslands but there are still doubts whether characteristic, valuable species really benefit in the long term. Moreover, there are gaps in knowledge with regard to the suitability of other robust livestock (e.g. Fjord Horses, Highland Cattle), which can be used in combination with goat grazing on less steep sites with deeper soil. In continuation of the former project, we will analyse and evaluate ongoing grazing measures (goat and mixed grazing) on species-rich small sites.
Moreover, we aim to increase awareness and higher acceptance among stakeholders and the public through knowledge transfer, propagating and publishing the study outcomes and displaying notice boards at respective sites.
Influences of goat grazing on flora and vegetation
After four years of grazing woody plant encroachment declined considerably (intensive encroachment: 23.8 %; less intensive encroachment: 8.4 %). In contrast, we recorded a considerable increase of woody plants in ungrazed control plots.
Observations of grazing animals indicate that almost all woody species are consumed even though the proportions differ from year to year depending on time of grazing and duration of the grazing period. The goats not only feed on the leaves and fruits, but also on the flowers of woody plants. They also browse on shrubberies with spines or thorns (e.g. Berberis vulgaris, young Robinia pseudoacacia, Rosa species). In addition, the young bark of many trees is peeled.
By standing on their hind legs, goats can reach branches at a height of about 1.8 m. In fact, the grazing horizon is even higher as goats can successfully push down branches with their front legs or their whole body. Thus, they can feed on woody plants collectively.
Goats do not only browse trees, but also consume grasses and herbs effectively.
In early summer 2009, woody plants made up 90 % of the food, whereas grasses and herbs only made up 10 %, in the project area Nelbener Grund. The proportion changed to 35 % (woody plants) and 65 % (grasses/herbs) in autumn 2009. Therefore, the livestock prefer the freshly sprouting trees in early summer whereas in autumn they increasingly graze fresh grasses and herbs.
In general, a decline of grass and herb cover was observed. This can mainly be explained by the decrease of previously dominant grasses, such as Bromus erectus. A continuous decline of the dense litter layer and an increase of bare soil was noted, especially on intensively used slopes. Simultaneously, the population size of endangered species (e.g. Astragalus exscapus) as well as the number of short-lived target species which colonized the newly created spots of bare soil increased.
In order to hinder the goats from breaking out of the pastures, electric fences with four to five strands proved to be useful. Power is supplied by a solar module with at least 40 watts, including protection against theft.
Boer goats are particularly well suited for grazing on steep slopes. This breed, originally from South Africa, is well adapted to a dry and warm climate. It is also a good climber and thus able to move easily on steep land. The Boer goat is a meat goat; it has comparatively little udders (larger only during the period of raising offspring), which results in a lower risk of injury in habitats with thorny shrubs and steep slopes. Because of their calm behaviour, the Boer goat has less power to jump, and is therefore less apt to escape than the Thuringian forest goat, for example.
Basically, grazing is possible from early spring to late autumn. In late autumn, with the beginning of frost, and cold and wet weather, the livestock should be herded into barns. Grazing periods and the number of livestock need to be adjusted to the respective area and weather conditions in each grazing period. In the phase of scrub clearing, a higher stocking rate is necessary, while the number of grazing animals should be reduced gradually during the phase of maintenance. The stocking rate is about 0.2 to 1.0 LU/ha/ year on encroached grasslands in the lower Saale river valley, but differs in other regions.
It is important not to remove all woody structures by goat grazing. Taking the habitat requirements of various animal groups into account, the conservation of individual trees and/or shrubbery up to 20 % cover is sensible and should be considered in grazing management (landscape-characteristic trees and shrubs, breeding places for birds).
A rotating system between different grazing areas, in order to reduce parasite infestation and support target species, is recommended. Interruptions in the grazing period enable certain flowering aspects (e.g. early summer aspect with characteristic species) on each grazing area to ripen without disturbance.
Elias et al. 2015: Lower Saale Valley: porphyry landscape near Gimritz, pearl grass slopes near Rothenburg, Nelbeer Grund and Georgsburg near Könnern (goat pasture) in Tuexenia supplement (8) 2015, pp. 75-93
Project leader: Prof. Dr. habil. Sabine Tischew
Researchers: Dr. Daniel Elias, Dr. Alrun Siebenkäs, Thomas Engst, M.Sc, Vera Senße, M.Sc.
Funded by: ELER Sachsen-Anhalt, 2006-2007, 2009-2010, 2010-2012, 2012-2014, 2014-2015, 2017-2020; Heidehofstiftung
Cooperations partner: Landschaftspflegeverein Saaletal e.V. (Zickeritz), BUND Halle-Saalekreis, SALIX – Büro für Ökologie und Landschaftsplanung (Wettin)