• afforestation;
  • breakdown rates;
  • ecosystem processes;
  • land-use;
  • shredders


1. Terrestrial leaf-litter is the dominant energy input to many headwater streams and consequently the nature of the riparian vegetation can have profound effects on in-stream processes. The impact of conifer plantations on community structure and ecosystem functioning (litter breakdown) was investigated in field experiments in three countries (Britain, Ireland, Poland), each representing a distinct European ecoregion. Twenty-six streams were used in the trial: half were bordered with broadleaved and the other half with conifer riparian vegetation.

2. In a leaf breakdown study using litter bags, two leaf types (oak and alder) were used to assess the impact of resource quality and two mesh sizes (10 and 0.5 mm aperture) were used to gauge the relative importance of invertebrate detritivores and microbial decomposers respectively. Comparisons were made between vegetation types and among regions; pH varied among individual streams but, unlike many previous studies, it was not confounded with vegetation type, enabling us to isolate the effect of vegetation more effectively.

3. Overall, riparian vegetation type did not affect breakdown rates but strong regional differences were observed. There was also a significant interaction between these two variables, but this disappeared after fitting pH as a covariable, demonstrating its importance in determining breakdown rates and raising the possibility that in previous studies the impacts of conifer plantations might have been confounded with pH.

4. Shredder species composition differed between vegetation types. Small stoneflies were most strongly associated with conifer streams; broadleaved streams generally had a higher proportion of larger taxa, such as limnephilid caddisflies and gammarid shrimps, although the latter were excluded from sites with low pH. However, breakdown rates were maintained irrespective of shredder community composition, suggesting a high degree of functional redundancy in these communities. Similar processing rates were observed between streams with high numbers of nemourids and those with only a few limnephilids or gammarids, suggesting that density compensation among consumers might stabilise process rates.

5. Our results suggest that leaf-litter breakdown can be an effective proxy for assessing stream ecosystem functioning, as rates differed significantly across spatial scales, from between streams to across regions and responded to an environmental gradient (pH). The litter bag technique can also complement traditional assessment methods by providing valuable information on the composition of consumer guilds, thereby providing an important link between structure and function that is needed to help inform management practices.