1. Information is lacking on how possible future changes in the seasonal occurrence and intensity of precipitation in Europe will affect the arthropod community of arable farmland.
2. We used a novel experimental approach to investigate the responses of farmland arthropods to spring precipitation in a spring-sown legume. Replicated plots were subjected to spring drought (plots shielded from rainfall), actual rainfall (reference) and spring irrigation. Shielding plots extended an existing drought to 58 days.
3. The response of epigeic arthropods was investigated using principal components analysis (PCA) and principal response curves (PRC). Temporal changes in treatment effects at the community level were more clearly displayed by PRC than by PCA, while PRC improved the interpretation of individual species' responses. PRC analysis has potential for wider application in ecological experiments and monitoring.
4. Short-term manipulation of precipitation in May affected the arthropod community for at least 97 days, despite exceptionally high rainfall in June. The effects of drought on the abundance of herbivores, mycophages, omnivores and predators were negative, while those of irrigation were positive. There were no differences in the responses of beneficial and pest taxa.
5. In addition to their intrinsic importance, these findings illustrate that spring weather might affect the availability of arthropod prey for insectivorous wildlife. Food availability has been implicated in the population declines of several insectivorous farmland birds.
6. The difficulty of manipulating rainfall in a temperate climate precludes realistic field studies of how farmland arthropods respond to precipitation. We suggest that automated rain shielding of experimental plots provides a technique for wider application in drought studies.