Horses are of increasing relevance in agriculturally managed grasslands across Europe. There is concern to what extent grazing with horses is a sustainable grassland management practice. The effect of longer-term horse grazing on the vegetation characteristics of grasslands has received little attention, especially in comparison to grazing cattle. Our study analyses the relative importance of grazing system (grazer species and regime) and grassland management for vegetation characteristics in grasslands as indicator for sustainable management. We monitored grassland vegetation in western central Germany and compared paddocks grazed by horses under two different regimes, continuous (HC) vs. rotational (HR), to paddocks grazed by cattle (C) under similar trophic site conditions. We observed more plant species and more High Nature Value indicator species on HC compared to C. The vegetation of C was more grazing tolerant and had higher forage value than HC. Regardless of the grazing regime, the competitive component was lower, the stress-tolerant component higher and the floristic contrast between patch-types stronger on HC and HR paddocks compared to C. Species richness was strongly influenced by the extent of the floristic contrast. Our results emphasize the potential of horse grazing for biodiversity in agriculturally managed grasslands.
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