Semi-natural grasslands including hay meadows belong to the most species-rich habitats in central Europe and are therefore of high conservation value. The high biodiversity of these grasslands has been maintained for many centuries through the regular disturbance by traditional management practices. In the Valais, an arid mountain region of Switzerland, traditional management of hay meadows includes irrigation by open water channels. In the past decades, however, the traditional irrigation technique was increasingly replaced by more efficient sprinkler-irrigation systems or irrigation was stopped on marginal and poorly accessible areas. Within the scope of this thesis, four studies were conducted to investigate different aspects of these changes in meadow irrigation. The aim of the first study was to examine whether land-use abandonment resulting from the cessation of irrigation influenced the biodiversity of hay meadows in the Valais. For this purpose, plant and gastropod surveys were conducted in three serial stages of succession (hay meadows, early abandoned meadows and young forests). Meadow abandonment resulted in an increase in gastropod species richness and a loss of plant and gastropod species characteristic for open grassland habitats. Furthermore, functional traits of plants (plant height, the start of seed shedding and the type of reproduction) and gastropods (shell size) were affected by abandonment. Traditional meadow irrigation is assumed to distribute the water more heterogeneously than sprinkler irrigation, which might affect meadow biodiversity as well as the distribution of plants in a small scale. The aim of the second study was to examine whether the change from traditional to sprinkler irrigation affected the local biodiversity (plants and gastropods) of hay meadows in the Valais. A high plant species richness was found in the hay meadows investigated. The diversity and composition of plant and gastropod species did not differ between traditionally and sprinkler-irrigated meadows. However, the installation of sprinkler systems resulted in an increase in the grass-to-forb ratio and affected the leaf distribution and the start of seed shedding in plants. The third study aimed to investigate whether the change in irrigation technique affected the small-scale distribution of plants and soil characteristics in these hay meadows. Three sampling plots consisting of 13 subplots of increasing size were installed in traditionally and sprinkler-irrigated meadows to assess plant species richness and soil characteristics within subplots. The type of irrigation technique did not affect the shape of the plant species-area relationship. Furthermore, spatial autocorrelation in the soil characteristics examined was low and their small-scale distributions were mostly not influenced by the irrigation technique. These findings indicate a pronounced small-scale heterogeneity in the distribution of plant species and soil characteristics in the hay meadows investigated. Therefore, as practiced in our study areas, the distribution of water by sprinklers might be less homogenous than commonly assumed. The abandonment of traditional management practices of semi-natural grasslands is suggested to result in a reduced landscape heterogeneity, which in turn might contribute to the loss of local plant diversity. The fourth study aimed to investigate whether the change from traditional to sprinkler irrigation resulted in alterations in the surrounding landscape of species-rich hay meadows. Furthermore, we asked if plant diversity of differently irrigated meadows is influenced by landscape composition and the heterogeneity of the surrounding landscape. Landscape composition was more diverse for traditionally than for sprinkler-irrigated meadows, but did not differ prior to the installation of sprinklers. A diverse small-scale landscape composition in the close surroundings of hay meadows had a positive effect on the number of generalists but not on total plant species richness or the number of specialists. Finally, sprinkler-irrigated meadows had an increased number of generalist plant species. The findings of this thesis suggest that the installation of sprinklers did not affect the local species richness of plants and gastropods in the hay meadows investigated. Nevertheless, the change in irrigation technique influenced functional aspects of plant diversity (plant traits, grass-to-forb ratio and generalist species). Furthermore, the installation of sprinklers was associated with a homogenization of the landscape, which may eventually result in an intensification of land use. For the conservation of the biodiversity of these hay meadows it is recommended to maintain the relatively extensive irrigation and management practices.

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