Contrasting effects of sheep and cattle grazing on foliar fungal diseases by changing plant community characteristics

Tianyun Li, Eric Allan, Sihan Yang, Yiming Liu, Moshe Inbar, Deli Wang, Zhiwei Zhong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pathogens are ubiquitous in ecosystems and play a key role in affecting host community structure. In grasslands, large grazing animals such as cattle and sheep have been shown to affect foliar fungal pathogens. However, theory and empirical studies have come to conflicting conclusions because grazers can directly and indirectly impact pathogens through a wide variety of mechanisms and various grazers may impact pathogens in different ways. A better understanding of the mechanisms by which grazers impact pathogens is important for a fundamental understanding of herbivore pathogen interactions and also to optimise grazing managements to reduce pathogen outbreaks. Here, we investigate multiple mechanisms by which livestock grazing impacts foliar fungal pathogens in grasslands. We integrate a large-scale grazing experiment, with a removal experiment manipulating plant density and litter biomass, to identify direct and indirect effects of two herbivores on pathogens with different life histories (biotrophs and necrotrophs), in a temperate grassland in northeast China. We found that grazing by cattle and sheep had contrasting impacts: cattle grazing significantly reduced pathogen load, of both biotrophs and necrotrophs, whereas sheep grazing increased biotrophic pathogen load, but did not affect the necrotrophs. The grazing effects were mostly indirect and mediated by different impacts of the herbivores on plant community structure. Cattle grazing reduced pathogen load because it reduced the abundance of susceptible, fast-growing plants, and the overall density of plants, while sheep grazing increased pathogen infection because it reduced the abundance of resistant plant species. Plant diversity also reduced pathogen infection but these effects were independent of the herbivores. Our results show that different herbivores can have contrasting impacts on pathogen infection through contrasting impacts on host community competence. This suggests the importance of considering multiple mechanisms simultaneously to evaluate the impact of herbivores on host-pathogen interactions. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFunctional Ecology
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 The Authors. Functional Ecology © 2024 British Ecological Society.


  • biological conservation
  • community composition
  • disease ecology
  • herbivory
  • indirect effects
  • litter biomass
  • pathogen
  • plant-pathogen interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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