We examined whether the exposure of Quercus robur L. to elevated UV-B radiation (280–315 nm) during growth would influence leaf decomposition rate through effects on litter quality. Saplings were exposed for eight months at an outdoor facility in the UK to a 30% elevation above the ambient level of erythemally weighted UV-B radiation under UV-B treatment arrays of fluorescent lamps filtered with cellulose diacetate, which transmitted both UV-B and UV-A (315–400 nm) radiation. Saplings were exposed to elevated UV-A alone under control arrays of lamps filtered with polyester and to ambient radiation under unenergised arrays of lamps. Abscised leaves from saplings were enclosed in 1 mm2 mesh nylon bags, placed in a Quercus–Fraxinus woodland and were sampled at 0.11, 0.53, 1.10 and 1.33 years for dry weight loss, chemical composition and saprotrophic fungal colonization.
At abscission, litters from UV-A control arrays had ≈ 7.5% higher lignin/nitrogen ratios than those from UV-B treatment and ambient arrays (P < 0.06). Dry weight loss of leaves treated with elevated UV-B radiation during growth was 2.5% and 5% greater than that of leaves from UV-A control arrays at 0.53 and 1.33 years, respectively. Litter samples from UV-B treatment arrays lost more nitrogen and phosphorus than samples from ambient arrays and more carbon than samples from UV-A control arrays. The annual fractional weight loss of litter from UV-B treatment arrays was 8% and 6% greater than that of litter from UV-A control and ambient arrays, respectively. Regression analyses indicated that the increased decomposition rate of UV-B treated litters was associated with enhanced colonization of leaves by basidiomycete fungi, the most active members of the soil fungal community, and that the frequency of these fungi was negatively associated with the initial lignin/nitrogen ratio of leaves.