Rest is a term applied to both plants and the soil they grow in.  Resting, or non-disturbance, is an action we can choose to take and therefore qualifies as a management tool.  When lakes, seas, forests, crop lands and range lands are deliberately rested, profound changes are created.

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Different outcomes, depending on brittleness
The almost universal human belief is that resting any environment (“leaving it to nature”) is beneficial.  This belief is well based as it generally holds true in non-brittle environments.  However in brittle-tending environments, over time rest leads to serious losses in biodiversity, with symptoms such as increased soil erosion, and increased frequency and severity of droughts and floods becoming more obvious.  

In damaged, brittle-tending environments the first two or three years after rest is applied often give the appearance that rest is beneficial, as vegetation generally increases in bulk.  That’s because, when animals are removed the widespread overgrazing that was frequently occurring is largely halted, and the plants respond with a surge of growth.  However, after say, five or more years, close inspection usually reveals that the land is again degrading, bare soil is increasing, and many plants are old, grey, lignified and inedible.

Plants: the difference between recovery and rest
Plants need full recovery between grazings.  However, if they remain ungrazed once they have reached full recovery, plants gradually become over-rested.  The cell structure of the leaves changes, and the plant is no longer capable of photosynthesis.  The plant begins to slowly die.  

You will notice on their growth curve below that it ‘tops out’, and over time the previous bulk of plant material declines.  This is due to slow, oxidising decay (as opposed to the rapid biological decay that occurs in non-brittle environments), which can take a long time to complete, and whilst it is occurring the plants become progressively more grey, and the material more ‘woody’ or lignified.  When managing holistically your task is to manage the left hand or productive side of what is actually a ‘bell curve’ representing the complete carbon cycle. Green 1.4

You can tell if your plants are over-rested.  Gradually the plants die from the centre, outwards.  If you approach the plant you can pull handfuls of old, grey lignified material from the centre of the plant, just like the one below.

Soils: Total rest
Total rest occurs when animals are deliberately removed from a piece of land for a long time.  This usually occurs because it is expected that this will help heal degrading land.  At times it might, but on the other hand, sometimes it sends the soil surface to sleep, and over time the soil becomes increasingly capped, reducing the ingress of rainfall and lowering the overall performance of the landscape.  You can definitely expect this to occur in brittle-tending environments, and if it does, the soil surface will begin to look like the photo below.

This soil surface has gone to ‘sleep’, and will only ‘wake up’ after it is disturbed.  Without serious disturbance it will gradually move from bare soil towards a soil surface covered in cryptogams, which although a cover, provide little opportunity for a grazier to convert sunlight to revenue (by capturing sunlight and converting it into a potentially marketable product).  Neither does it provide much protected habitat for living organisms.

Soils: Partial rest
Perhaps hardest for many people to understand is the fact that the land can be rested—what we refer to as partial rest—when there are herding animals (wild or domestic) on it but in low numbers, low density, and seldom bunched.  This form of rest can be nearly as destructive as total rest, when all animals are excluded.  

Managed disturbance of both totally rested and partially rested landscapes can only be created by mechanical means (involving machinery and the consumptive use of fuel) or by herding animals, changing their behaviour, and holding them at greater density for short periods, and then not returning to that of land until the benefits of the disturbance have started to occur, and the plants are fully recovered, when it will need to be repeated.  This is the tool of animal impact.

The devastating paradigm of ‘overstocking’
As land starts to decline under partial rest, carrying capacity also reduces.  The conventional wisdom is to declare that the land is ‘overstocked’ and to further reduce the number of animals that are still held at low desities for a long time on the piece of land.

The effect of this decision is to establish the condition that allow even more plants to become over-rested and die, creating still more bare soil in brittle-tending environments.  This negative spiral occurs until the majority of plants are dead or dying, stocking rate is very low and declining, and the farmer has probably given up.  The root cause of the problem, lack of appropriate disturbance, is rarely addressed.
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