Perennial forage

Introducing a native perennial forage crop to combat desertification in Tunisia (more photos)

Seed Collection in Tunisia Field trial of perennial forage Stipa lagascae near Gabès, Tunisia

Sample abstract

from: Visser Marjolein and Frédéric Morand, 2000; Social clues to the reintroduction of native grazed perennials in Presaharian Tunisia: the recent pas revisited; Society for Ecological Restoration International Conference, Liverpool, UK

In Presaharian Tunisia, a showcase of accelerated desertification since the 1950s, agriculture has invaded the former collective rangelands, turning them into a patchwork of eroded private fields and range leftovers. Moreover, ongoing rural exodus and urbanisation cause fields to be abandoned without any significant spontaneous secondary succession. Given the need for local herbage and forage, this may soon trigger demand for seeds of native perennials with high grazing value, and even raise the prospect of restoring the historical rangelands. Government-funded native seed production programs try to anticipate this demand, but their target species are in fact socially disregarded. This impedes their reintroduction within private lands. Interviews of local agropastoralists renowned for their ecological working knowledge focused on the change in their perception of these species throughout the last decades. Ecologically promising species appear to have been key resources for agropastoralists. But their overexploitation, the sedentarisation - urbanization process and import of animal feeds led to their social depreciation. Agropastoralists may renew their perceptions of native perennials if emphasis is put on their virtues in terms of soil protection, forage production, low maintenance requirements, and persistence. However, if renewal happens, it will lead to restored fields very different from the historical rangelands.


Stipa lagascae

Other references:

Visser Marjolein, 2001; Produire des semences autochtones pour réhabiliter des terres dégradées : le cas de Stipa lagascae R. & Sch. en Tunisie Présaharienne [Producing native seeds for restoring degraded lands: the case of Stipa lagascae R. & Sch. in Presaharian Tunisia]; Doctorate thesis, Applied Biological Sciences: Agronomy, University of Ghent, Ghent (Belgium), 374 p.

Visser Marjolein, Frédéric Morand and Hedi Mahdhi, 2002; Fauche de Stipa lagascae et réhabilitation des terres privées en Tunisie aride; Cahiers Agricultures, 11, 377:383 (résumé).

Visser Marjolein, Frédéric Morand and Dirk Reheul, 2001; Haymaking of Stipa lagascae in Presaharian Tunisia: opportunities to restore private arid land; Ecological Restoration, 18 (1), 47:49.

See more references in Publications.




Visser et al 2002 ; Fauche de Stipa et réhabilitation (abridged version in English)


Visser Marjolein, Frédéric Morand and Hedi Mahdhi, 2002; Fauche de Stipa lagascae et réhabilitation des terres privées en Tunisie aride; Cahiers Agricultures, 11, 377:383.


Abridged version in English (résumé en français)

A number of ecological restoration projects black-box the rationale of land users. This has particularly important consequences in less affluent societies such as in Presaharian Tunisia (average annual rainfall 100-200 mm), a showcase of accelerated desertification since the 1950s. Here, agriculture has invaded the former common rangelands, turning them into a patchwork of eroded private land (cereal fallows and olive orchards) and overgrazed range leftovers. Lack of adapted perennial plant cover is a major cause of low productivity of private land. In order to reverse the desertification process, restoration ecologists suggest that cultivated land should return to rangeland. However, this reconversion, be it to private or to common rangeland, is not realistic, in the first place because the social demand concentrates heavily on (privately owned) cultivated land. In this context, certainly the use of native species (mainly palatable perennial grasses and legumes) is ecologically sounder than the continuation of an impoverished and marginally productive form of Mediterranean agriculture. But social acceptance of these native species within private lands depends on whether people can harvest them in another way than through grazing. Our idea is that instead of converting these areas into rangeland, haymaking of palatable perennial grasses can provide the key to their ecological restoration.

Summer drought is a major problem for Mediterranean animal husbandry. In Presaharian Tunisia, dry summer forage is of vital importance for the survival of livestock until the first winter rains. Hence every spring, local agropastoralists make hay from several range species. Though never fully described, this practice has undergone profound changes since the 1950s. How was haymaking done before the 1950s? Why did it change? Is there any opportunity to re-establish it within private lands? We carried out 11 in-depth interviews with local elderly agropastoralists from different regions, renowned for their ecological working knowledge. We focused on Stipa lagascae R. & Sch. (hereafter called Stipa), a flagship species of restoration ecologists for its grazing value and grazing resistance, but not for its value as a hay plant.


The interviewees told us unanimously that until the 1950s three plant groups were systematically hayed: (1) annuals that are ubiquitous in rainy years but absent in dry years, (2) fibrous perennial grasses of low grazing value that colonize rocky relief, gypsous crusts and moving sands and (3) Stipa, which can only be hayed if not grazed during the preceding winter. Haymaking of Stipa, the most precious resource, was special. It was part of the transhumance calendar, according to which people and animals spent the dry part of the year in villages near permanent access to water. If the winter rains were abundant, entire households left the villages to camp in their traditional grazing lands on the border of the true Sahara. Only there, far away from permanent settlements, populations of Stipa were still extensive enough to provide hay at the end of the grazing season (Figure 1).

Nowadays, only annuals and fibrous perennial grasses remain commonly hayed by settled agropastoralists. These species have spread because of accelerated soil cultivation and erosion caused by demographic explosion and huge socio-economic changes (Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956). The combination of Stipa decline and the perspective of a better life lead people to give up transhumance and Stipa haymaking, and to focus on private land ownership near their villages (Figure 2). Despite the current availability of commercial feeds, agropastoralists still try to reduce monetary expenses by feeding their animals from locally self-gathered plant material. Although the interviewees unanimously appreciate the Stipa hay, they cannot conceive growing Stipa by themselves. Still, haymaking of Stipa, and possibly also other grasses (even more rarified), holds promise to restore private lands in Presaharian Tunisia while generating an income alternative. Reintroduction becomes then a matter of changing agropastoralists' perceptions, by exploring the benefits of growing native species as perennial dryland forages.


Visser et al 2002 ; Fauche de Stipa et réhabilitation (résumé)


Visser Marjolein, Frédéric Morand and Hedi Mahdhi, 2002; Fauche de Stipa lagascae et réhabilitation des terres privées en Tunisie aride; Cahiers Agricultures, 11, 377:383.


Résumé (abridged version in English)

En Tunisie présaharienne, la privatisation récente des terres collectives a entrainé la disparition du couvert végétal pérenne, aggravant le problème de la désertification. Dans le contexte socio-économique actuel, réhabiliter ces terres par le retour aux parcours collectifs n'est pas réaliste. L'utilisation raisonnée d'espèces autochtones offre en revanche de meilleures pistes de recherche. Stipa lagascae R. & Sch., l'une des espèces les plus prometteuses en raison de sa valeur pastorale élevée, était traditionnellement fanée pour l'affouragement estival. Réintroduire son fanage pourrait servir la réhabilitation des terres privées. Des enquêtes avec des agropasteurs témoins de ce fanage livrent l'histoire de cette pratique et de sa disparition sous l'effet des mutations agraires que le pays a connues depuis son indépendance. Il en ressort que réintroduire des espèces autochtones fauchables comme Stipa dans les terres privées élargirait les perspectives de la lutte contre la désertification, tout en renouvelant le fonctionnement des systèmes agropastoraux. Le succès d'une telle réintroduction exige toutefois que les acteurs locaux, chercheurs comme usagers de l'espace, puissent transformer ces espèces-clés en véritables cultures fourragères en sec.

Mots clés

Tunisie présaharienne, espèces autochtones, aridité, désertification, Stipa lagascae, graminée fourragère