The effect of increased deposition of atmospheric nitrogen on Calluna vulgaris in upland Britain



Regular (monthly) additions of NH4NO3 (4–12 g N m−2 yr−1) were made over a period of 8 yr (1989–98) to areas of moorland in North Wales dominated by the ericaceous shrub Calluna vulgaris. Results from the early stages of the experiment (1990–94) have shown marked and dose-related increases in shoot extension and canopy height in response to the nitrogen treatments, with significantly higher shoot nitrogen contents. The nitrogen-related stimulation in the growth of the C. vulgaris canopy over this period has resulted in large accumulations of litter on the high-nitrogen-treated plots (6.6 kg m−2 in plots treated with 12 g N m−2 yr−1, compared with 3.8 kg m−2 for the water controls). Litter nitrogen concentrations were also significantly increased at the higher rates of nitrogen addition, leading to a doubling of the total return of nitrogen to the litter layer over the experimental period. These changes in vegetation structure were associated with large reductions in the abundance of the bryophyte and lichen species normally present under the untreated canopy. Results since 1994, however, show little increase in shoot extension in response to the nitrogen treatments, with no clear dose response to increasing levels of addition. These findings are associated with a dose-related increase in the susceptibility of the nitrogen-treated areas of the C. vulgaris canopy to late winter injury, characterized as browning of the shoot tips in early to late spring. These results indicate that deleterious effects are now accumulating as a result of the long-term addition of nitrogen to these moorland plots.