Influence of soil and microclimate on species composition and grass encroachment in heath succession
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Aims and Methods Mostly due to land use changes, European heathlands have become increasingly rare. In addition, the increasing amount of atmospheric nitrogen deposition has resulted in an encroachment of grasses and a loss in species diversity. Despite many investigations, information about the precise environmental parameters that determine the development and maintenance of heathland vegetation is still insufficient. In order to determine the environmental factors that control heath succession and grass encroachment, and to develop appropriate management schemes, we studied the influence of several soil and microclimate parameters on species composition and vegetation characteristics in five successional stages in a coastal heathland on the island of Hiddensee, north-east Germany, where the encroachment of Carex arenaria has become a major problem. Important Findings We recorded the highest plant species richness in grey dune and birch forest plots, while the encroachment of C. arenaria let to a significant decline in plant species richness. The most important environmental factors influencing species richness and distribution of single species were microclimate, soil moisture, soil pH and the C/N ratio. While many studies reported the importance of differences in nutrient availability, we found no significant correlations between soil nutrient availability and vegetation pattern. Environmental conditions in dense C. arenaria stands, especially soil properties (e.g. soil pH), showed great differences in comparison to the other successional stages. However, no correlations between the encroachment of C. arenaria and single environmental factors were found. Our results show that not only soil nutrients are important abiotic factors in heaths but that also microclimate and soil moisture play an important role and that many factors are involved in heath succession and in the promotion of grass encroachment. Management plans for the conservation and restoration of heathlands should therefore focus on the specific site conditions and should take several abiotic and biotic factors into account.