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Are shrubs really a sign of declining ecosystem function? Disentangling the myths and truths of woody encroachment in Australia
by David J. Eldridge and Santiago Soliveres
in Australian Journal of Botany 62(7) 594-608
Since European settlement, there has been a dramatic increase in the density, cover and distribution of woody plants in former grassland and open woodland. There is a widespread belief that shrub encroachment is synonymous with declines in ecosystem functions, and often it is associated with landscape degradation or desertification. Indeed, this decline in ecosystem functioning is considered to be driven largely by the presence of the shrubs themselves.
This prevailing paradigm has been the basis for an extensive program of shrub removal, based on the view that it is necessary to reinstate the original open woodland or grassland structure from which shrublands are thought to have been derived. We review existing scientific evidence, particularly focussed on eastern Australia, to question the notion that shrub encroachment leads to declines in ecosystem functions. We then summarise this scientific evidence into two conceptual models aimed at optimising landscape management to maximise the services provided by shrub-encroached areas. The first model seeks to reconcile the apparent conflicts between the patch- and landscape-level effects of shrubs. The second model identifies the ecosystem services derived from different stages of shrub encroachment. We also examined six ecosystem services provided by shrublands (biodiversity, soil C, hydrology, nutrient provision, grass growth and soil fertility) by using published and unpublished data. We demonstrated the following: (1) shrub effects on ecosystems are strongly scale–, species- and environment-dependent and, therefore, no standardised management should be applied to every case; (2) overgrazing dampens the generally positive effect of shrubs, leading to the misleading relationship between encroachment and degradation; (3) woody encroachment per se does not hinder any of the functions or services described above, rather it enhances many of them; (4) no single shrub-encroachment state (including grasslands without shrubs) will maximise all services; rather, the provision of ecosystem goods and services by shrublands requires a mixture of different states; and (5) there has been little rigorous assessment of the long-term effectiveness of removal and no evidence that this improves land condition in most cases. Our review provides the basis for an improved, scientifically based understanding and management of shrublands, so as to balance the competing goals of providing functional habitats, maintaining soil processes and sustaining pastoral livelihoods.