How do subordinate and dominant species in semi-natural mountain grasslands relate to productivity and land-use change?
Changes in agricultural practices of semi-natural mountain grasslands are expected to modify plant community structure and shift dominance patterns. Using vegetation surveys of 11 sites in semi-natural grasslands of the Swiss Jura and Swiss and French Alps, we determined the relative contribution of dominant, subordinate and transient plant species in grazed and abandoned communities and observed their changes along a gradient of productivity and in response to abandonment of pasturing. The results confirm the humpbacked diversity-productivity relationship in semi-natural grassland, which is due to the increase of subordinate species number at intermediate productivity levels. Grazed communities, at the lower or higher end of the species diversity gradient, suffered higher species loss after grazing abandonment. Species loss after abandonment of pasturing was mainly due to a higher reduction in the number of subordinate species, as a consequence of the increasing proportion of dominant species. When plant biodiversity maintenance is the aim, our results have direct implications for the way grasslands should be managed. Indeed, while intensification and abandonment have been accelerated since few decades, our findings in this multi-site analysis confirm the importance of maintaining intermediate levels of pasturing to preserve biodiversity.