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Bringing overgrazed land back from the brink

Assessing grazing quality
credit: Susie Emmett

Crouch down close to the hot, dry soil and scan the sparse vegetation and a surprising sight meets your eyes. Weaving away to the horizon are narrow tracks filled with indigenous plants that stand taller and thicker than anything around. In an area of severely overgrazed land, something dramatic has been achieved. "Irreversible degradation is almost upon us," says pasture and rangeland specialist, Mustapha Bounejmate. "What you see here is a real breakthrough."

A breakthrough is needed. The Syrian steppe used to provide up to 60% of the diet for the country's small ruminants. Now, that has fallen to as little as 5%. As in many of the world's drylands, a vicious circle of degradation is in progress as overgrazing and the ploughing up of the best rangeland to grow barley has reduced the natural plant cover. As shortage of grazing pushes up the value of feed barley, the high value of the grain encourages farmers to plant even more barley on marginal soils. Recognizing the dangers in this increasing encroachment, six years ago the Syrian government banned the cultivation of barley in areas with less than 200mm of annual rainfall. Some badly degraded areas closed to farmers and only open for grazing at certain times were offered to the pasture team of the Natural Resource Management programme of Syrian-based International Centre for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). Trials were initiated to find out how to revive such exhausted and over-grazed rangeland.

The technique known as 'pit-seeding' may be their best technique yet. "It's one kind of water harvesting" explains Mustapha Bounejmate, kneeling amongst the cluster of new growth in the latest trial in the valley of Khannasser, in northern Syria. "Along the contours, we pull a twin press across the soil making, in a double row, a succession of depressions at the depth we want where seeds from local forage species are dropped in." He points to one of the metre-long, 20cm-wide pits filled with a variety of wild grasses and legumes that thrive in well-managed dry pasture. "Each pit catches any rainfall and it also traps seeds being blown in the wind. From North Africa to China, there's not one government that can afford to use conventional methods to rehabilitate the huge areas of their countries that need it, but this technique is cheap and effective." To test the method, the team tried pit-seeding in the even drier soils of north west Egypt, where annual rainfall is less than 100mm. Establishment was good.

In another trial area in Syria, animals themselves have been helping to seed denuded land. Having grazed well, sheep are held overnight in a degraded area while the seeds they have eaten are passed in dung scarified by mastication and digestion, coated with fertilizer and ready to germinate. "We named this the sheep shuttle," says Fahim Ghassali, a research assistant with ICARDA. "Eleven species of trifolium have been spread in this way." But reviving damaged land is not merely a technical problem. Empowerment of the local community is the key point. Unless the best technique is matched with the right policy, land tenure and good management, it has little chance of success.

The steppe is not the only place where ICARDA's pasture team are trying to restore the balance. In the vast sea of continuous barley that edges the rangeland, they are demonstrating a radical integration of grazing plants with grain and success here could mean preventing soil degradation occurring in the first place. Only once every 6-10 years is there is enough rain for the barley, which is grown on the fringe of the steppe, to head and usually the unfulfilled crop is grazed off by sheep. At seven demonstration sites, the pasture team has transplanted protein-rich saltbush (Atriplex canescens) in rows 10 metres apart with drilled barley between rows. This improves the overall feed value available for grazing and re-introduces a species better suited to such thin soils. Farmer scepticism - mostly rooted in reluctance to give up 10% of potential arable ground to a grazing plant - is being overcome with evidence that this is more than compensated for by improved yield of barley, which thrives in the favourable microclimate and shelter Atriplex provides.

This year, above average rains have helped the rangeland look better than for a decade. But research workers and farmers alike are well aware of the underlying pressure on these dryland areas and the urgent need for reviving the steppe before it's too late. There are millions and millions of hectares that need good management and this work is trying to create sustainability by re-introducing good grazing plants. But everyone knows that a point is fast approaching when, if nothing is done, this vast area will soon be desert.

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