Wild boar rooting and livestock grazing activities affect alpine earthworm communities in the Central Pyrenees (Spain)
In alpine areas, shifts in traditional grazing activities are globally affecting ecosystem properties and rural livelihoods. The ongoing decrease in extensive husbandry, with a decline in sheep numbers and a relative increase in cattle stocking rates, has resulted in the abandonment of large alpine grazing areas. This pastoral change has been recently associated with increased disturbances of wild boar (Sus scrofa), mainly within cattle-stocked ranges. In turn, cattle areas favor earthworm communities, a preferred trophic resource for wild boars in mountain environments. However, it is unknown whether wild boar disturbances, together with grazing activities, can affect earthworm communities. Our aim is to analyze the abundance, richness and ecological categories of earthworms and soil parameters (soil C and N concentrations, moisture, and C:N ratio) in relation to the occurrence of wild boar disturbances and grazing activities at different stocking pressures. We sampled two different grazing scenarios differing in the distribution of cattle along a grazing gradient, which was represented by three levels of stocking pressure (high, intermediate and low). Our results showed a complex effect of grazing activities and disturbances on the abundance and richness of earthworms, along with variations in C:N ratio and soil moisture, especially with increasing cattle presence. At high-stocking pressures differences in earthworm abundance and richness between disturbed and undisturbed areas were limited, whereas at intermediate-stocking pressures earthworms were favored by wild boar disturbances. Ecological categories of earthworms responded differently; endogeic species were the most affected by grazing pressures and wild boar rooting, with highest occurrence at high-stocking pressures and within boar disturbed areas. In sum, pastoral use and soil disturbances affected earthworm community structure and composition in complex ways. These results indicate an interaction of processes that is relevant to understand current changes in alpine ecosystems.