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Accumulation of carbon and nitrogen by old arable land reverting to woodland


D. S. Jenkinson, tel. 01582 763133, fax 01582 760981, e-mail:


The accumulation of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) was measured on two sites on Rothamsted Farm that had been fenced off some 120 years ago and allowed to revert naturally to woodland. The sites had previously been arable for centuries. One had been chalked and was still calcareous; the other had never been chalked and the pH fell from 7.1 in 1883 to 4.4 in 1999. The acidic site (Geescroft wilderness) is now a deciduous wood, dominated by oak (Quercus robor); the calcareous site (Broadbalk wilderness) is now dominated by ash (Fraxinus excelsior), with sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and hawthorn (Craetagus monogyna) as major contributors. The acidic site gained 2.00 t C ha−1 yr−1 over the 118-year period (0.38 t in litter and soil to a depth of 69 cm, plus an estimated 1.62 t in trees and their roots); the corresponding gains of N were 22.2 kg N ha−1 year−1 (15.2 kg in the soil, plus 6.9 kg in trees and their roots). The calcareous site gained 3.39 t C ha−1 year−1 over the 120-year period (0.54 t in the soil, plus an estimated 2.85 t in trees and roots); for N the gains were 49.6 kg ha−1 yr−1 (36.8 kg in the soil, plus 12.8 kg in trees and roots). Trees have not been allowed to grow on an adjacent part of the calcareous site. There is now a little more C and N in the soil from this part than in the corresponding soil under woodland. We argue from our results that N was the primary factor limiting plant growth and hence accumulation of C during the early stages of regeneration in these woodlands. As soil organic N accumulates and the sites move towards N saturation, other factors become limiting. Per unit area of woodland, narrow strips; that is, wide hedges with trees, are the most efficient way of sequestering C – provided that they are not short of N.

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