Articles | Volume 1, issue 2
Original research article
09 Nov 2015
Original research article |  | 09 Nov 2015

Exploring the linkage between spontaneous grass cover biodiversity and soil degradation in two olive orchard microcatchments with contrasting environmental and management conditions

E. V. Taguas, C. Arroyo, A. Lora, G. Guzmán, K. Vanderlinden, and J. A. Gómez

Abstract. Spontaneous grass covers are an inexpensive soil erosion control measure in olive orchards. Olive farmers allow grass to grow on sloping terrain to comply with the basic environmental standards derived from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP, European Commission). However, to date there are few studies assessing the environmental quality considering such covers. In this study, we measured biodiversity indices for spontaneous grass cover in two olive orchards with contrasting site conditions and management regimes in order to evaluate the potential for biodiversity metrics to serve as an indicator of soil degradation. In addition, the differences and temporal variability of biodiversity indicators and their relationships with environmental factors such as soil type and properties, precipitation, topography and soil management were analysed.

Different grass cover biodiversity indices were evaluated in two olive orchard catchments under conventional tillage and no tillage with grass cover, during 3 hydrological years (2011–2013). Seasonal samples of vegetal material and photographs in a permanent grid (4 samples ha−1) were taken to characterize the temporal variations of the number of species, frequency of life forms, diversity and modified Shannon and Pielou indices.

Sorensen's index showed strong differences in species composition for the grass covers in the two olive orchard catchments, which are probably linked to the different site conditions. The catchment (CN) with the best site conditions (deeper soil and higher precipitation) and most intense management presented the highest biodiversity indices as well as the highest soil losses (over 10 t ha−1). In absolute terms, the diversity indices of vegetation were reasonably high for agricultural systems in both catchments, despite the fact that management activities usually severely limit the landscape and the variety of species. Finally, a significantly higher content of organic matter in the first 10 cm of soil was found in the catchment with worse site conditions in terms of water deficit, average annual soil losses of 2 t ha−1 and the least intense management. Therefore, the biodiversity indices considered in this study to evaluate spontaneous grass cover were not found to be suitable for describing the soil degradation in the study catchments.

Short summary
Biodiversity indices for spontaneous grass cover were measured in two olive orchards in southern Spain with contrasting site conditions and management to evaluate their potential for biodiversity metrics of soil degradation. Biodiversity indices were relatively high for agricultural areas. No correlation between the biodiversity indicators and soil quality features were observed. The mere use of vegetation presence as a proxy might mask relative intense soil degradation processes.