Natalie Sturm - June 2018

Many afternoons during my time in Zawiya Ahansal, Morocco were spent sampling plants.  For this project, plant sampling involved recording every plant species present in pre-determined, 100 square meter rectangles.  A fellow student on the trip had determined these rectangles (or “points”) for his own vegetation project, and since the points were all in areas that are grazed by sheep and goats, I was able to help him and collect data for my project as well.

The points we sampled from were all at different elevation levels, beginning at the edge of the village and continuing high into the mountains.  In addition to recording the species present, the percent cover of vegetation was also recorded. Sampling plant species diversity and density is important to understanding how grazing impacts an ecosystem.  Additionally, identifying vegetation also indicates the quality of the forage available for sheep and goats to graze on. Before embarking on our trip, my professor and mentor Dr. Tim Seipel explained the impact that overgrazing has had on the ecosystem of Zawiya Ahansal.  But I was not prepared for the true lack of vegetation. 

As you can see from this picture, the ground is extremely barren.  While this made for easy plant sampling, this bare ground is detrimental to the ecosystem and the communities that rely on it. 

These pictures show a little more ground cover, however the majority of the plants present were “woody” species.  Woody plants include shrubs and trees, and they tend to be less palatable to livestock.  Goats tolerate these woody species, but they are not as palatable to sheep.  Grasses are generally higher quality forage.  However, we encountered very few grasses during sampling.  The grasses we did encounter were growing in the shelter of rock piles, out of the sight and reach of hungry sheep and goats.

One location in the village served as a stark contrast to the low vegetation cover observed in the grazing lands:    

These are pictures of the village cemetery; a sacred place in which grazing is not allowed.  Throughout Morocco, cemeteries serve not only as memorials to the dead, but also as monuments to the diversity and density of vegetation that could be present throughout Moroccan ecosystems.  I believe that the cemeteries also serve as examples of the possibilities for grazing lands in the High Atlas Mountains (but more on that in another blog post…)

The lack of vegetation directly impacts the people of Zawiya Ahansal.  Lack of vegetation impacts their livestock; poor vegetation leads to low quality of meat and wool.  But poor ground cover also has less obvious impacts.

With nothing to hold the soil in place, erosion rates are high in Zawiya.  Lack of plant cover and roots to hold soil in place also leads to floods.  One evening while in Zawiya, a short burst of rain caused a riverbed running through town to gush with a torrent of water so loud it sounded like thunder.  Locals scrambled out of the way of the powerful flow.  Low vegetation density means that these erosion and flooding events will continue to be regular occurrences in Zawiya Ahansal.   

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