Evidence that enhanced reactive nitrogen deposition is affecting semi-natural terrestrial ecosystems comes from historic increases in plant tissue N concentrations, correlations between tissue N concentrations and present-day total atmospheric N deposition, changes in plant amino-acid composition and effects on N assimilation. The ecological significance of such changes in biomarkers is uncertain. This paper explores the ecological significance of reactive atmospheric N deposition through a review of previous experimental findings and new experimental evidence from an acidic and a calcareous grassland, both showing phosphorus limitation, and a N-limited Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull heathland in upland Britain. Nitrogen addition in the range 0–20 g N m−2 yr−1 initially (years 0–4) increased the growth of Calluna and a decline in some subordinate species. In subsequent years, shoot extension was not stimulated, but winter injury was observed from 1993 onwards, suggesting a strong interaction between N supply and climatic conditions. By contrast, the grasslands showed a small decrease in the cover of higher plants in later years (6–7) of the experimental treatments (0–14 g N m−2 yr−1) and no growth stimulation. All N treatments reduced the bryophyte cover in the acidic grassland. There were marked effects on below-ground processes, including a sustained stimulation of N mineralization in the grassland soils, and an increase in the bacterial utilization of organic substrates in the heathland, as measured in BIOLOG plates. The results strongly suggest the importance of atmospheric N deposition on microbially driven processes in soils, and are discussed in relation to the scale of potential ecosystem changes and their reversibility by pollution abatement.