Fazan L, Ghosn D, Remoundou I, Gotsiou P, Thanos C, Pasta S. Garfi G, Kozlowski G. 2021. Free behind bars: Effects of browsing exclusion on the growth and regeneration of Zelkova abelicea. Forest Ecology and Management (accepted) (PDF)
Caprine overbrowsing is a main threat to trees of pastoral mountain woodlands in the Mediterranean region of Europe. In this study, we assess the impact of browsing exclusion on the growth and regeneration of the endangered Zelkova abelicea, a Paleogene relict tree endemic to Crete (Greece). Shoot elongation, height growth and natural regeneration were monitored during two to five years in 31 fenced plots across the distribution range of the species. We found that in the absence of browsing pressure, Z. abelicea produces shoots on average two times longer than when browsed, therefore clearly demonstrating the negative impact of current browsing pressure on the growth performance of the species. Shoot elongation and height growth were maximal in most plots during the first two years following fencing, after which growth rates decreased. The proportion of trees that reached a height considered out of reach of caprine browsing had more than doubled already after four years, although this was dependent on initial tree height. Shoot elongation and height growth were positively correlated with tree height, and smaller trees took more time to reach a specific height. Seedlings were only found in three fenced plots as well as in two control browsed areas during a single year and only in western Crete. This underlines the possible strong and concerning impact of climatic factors on seed formation as well as on seedling growth and survival, although site specificities such as stand structure and micro-topography should also be considered. Our findings have important implications for conservation actions, as they can help choose which stands and which individuals to fence in priority for efficient long-term conservation.