1. Running waters, including associated riparian areas, are embraced by international legal frameworks outlining targets for the preservation, protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. Interactions between stream and river processes and riparian habitats have not received much attention in the management of stream ecosystems, and integrated measures that consider both the ecological status of streams and rivers (sensu EU Water Framework Directive, WFD) and the conservation status of riparian habitats and species (sensu EU Habitats Directive, HD) are rare.
2. Here, we analysed the influence of stream size, morphology and chemical water characteristics for the distribution of water-dependent terrestrial habitat types, i.e. alkaline fens, periodically inundated meadows and meadows in riparian areas in Denmark using an extensive data set covering a total of 254 stream reaches. A species-based classification model was used to translate species lists into a standardised interpretation of habitat types protected by the HD in Denmark.
3. No size dependency was found regarding the distribution of fen and meadow vegetation. Instead, the distribution of fen and meadow vegetation was strongly affected by the morphology of the streams. Alkaline fens, periodically inundated meadows and meadows occurred six, five and four times, respectively, less frequently along channelised compared with natural stream reaches. Our results indicate that stream channelisation strongly interfered with the natural hydrology of riparian areas, affecting conditions needed to sustain protected fen and meadow communities.
4. We also found that water chemistry strongly influenced the occurrence of fen and meadow vegetation in riparian areas. The probability of finding fen and meadow vegetation was reduced when total phosphorus (TP) concentration exceeded 40–50 μg P L−1, whereas meadow vegetation responded less strongly to TP.
5. Our findings highlight the importance of restoring hydrology of riparian areas to improve conditions for fen and meadow vegetation, but also that the water chemistry should be considered when measures that increase hydrological connectivity result in an increase in the probability of flooding.