Assessment of Expert Opinion: Seasonal Sheep Preference and Plant Response to Grazing

15 May 2007

Expert opinion was sought on two issues relating to herbivory: seasonal sheep preferences for plant species and seasonal plant response to grazing. Expert opinion is commonly used to parameterize models: it is therefore important to assess its quality. Understanding the limitations of expert knowledge can allow prioritization of future research. Nine experts in plant or grazing ecology from Scotland/Northern England were individually interviewed. The experts ranked sheep preferences for species in four rangeland vegetation types and provided categorical information on plant response to grazing. For both issues, seasonal information was collected. Uncertainty (unanswered questions) on plant responses was much higher than uncertainty on sheep preferences. Uncertainty on sheep preference was significantly negatively correlated with plant species commonness, but not with quantity of scientific literature. Uncertainty on plant responses was significantly negatively correlated with both plant commonness and literature. There was agreement between experts on sheep preferences; standardized seasonal information for selected plant species is presented. In general, experts considered graminoids to be preferred over dwarf shrubs, with forbs and other species groups intermediate. Seasonal variation in sheep preference was greater for heath and mire than for grasslands. There was limited agreement between experts on seasonal plant responses. Some experts considered grazing in summer to affect growth more than grazing in winter, while others thought season had little effect. Sufficient agreement was found at the species level to present results on plant responses. Experts considered graminoids more resilient to grazing than dwarf shrubs. Experts agreed on sheep preference at different times of year, and on the overall resilience of plant species to grazing. However, the experts held two paradigms on the impact of seasonal grazing. Further research is required to explore this, since seasonal grazing regimes are currently promoted as conservation management tools.