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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Tree thinning as an option to increase herbaceous yield of an encroached semi-arid savanna in South Africa

Gert N Smit

Author Affiliations

Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences, University of the Free State, P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein 9300, Republic of South Africa

BMC Ecology 2005, 5:4  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-5-4

Published: 28 May 2005



The investigation was conducted in a savanna area covered by what was considered an undesirably dense stand of Colophospermum mopane trees, mainly because such a dense stand of trees often results in the suppression of herbaceous plants. The objectives of this study were to determine the influence of intensity of tree thinning on the dry matter yield of herbaceous plants (notably grasses) and to investigate differences in herbaceous species composition between defined subhabitats (under tree canopies, between tree canopies and where trees have been removed). Seven plots (65 × 180 m) were subjected to different intensities of tree thinning, ranging from a totally cleared plot (0 %) to plots thinned to the equivalent of 10 %, 20%, 35 %, 50% and 75 % of the leaf biomass of a control plot (100 %) with a tree density of 2711 plants ha-1. The establishment of herbaceous plants (grasses and forbs) in response to reduced competition from the woody plants was measured during three full growing seasons following the thinning treatments.


The grass component reacted positively to the tree thinning in terms of total dry matter (DM) yield, but forbs were negatively influenced. Rainfall interacted with tree density and the differences between grass DM yields in thinned plots during years of below average rainfall were substantially higher than those of the control. At high tree densities, yields differed little between seasons of varying rainfall. The relation between grass DM yield and tree biomass was curvilinear, best described by the exponential regression equation. Subhabitat differentiation by C. mopane trees did provide some qualitative benefits, with certain desirable grass species showing a preference for the subhabitat under tree canopies.


While it can be concluded from this study that high tree densities suppress herbaceous production, the decision to clear/thin the C. mopane trees should include additional considerations. Thinning of C. mopane with the exclusive objective of increasing productivity of the grass layer would thus invariably involve a compromise situation where some trees should be left for the sake of the qualitative benefits on the herbaceous layer, soil enrichment, provision of browse and stability of the ecosystem.