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Keywords:

  • abiotic and biotic stress;
  • ammonia;
  • ammonium;
  • Calluna;
  • Eriophorum vaginatum;
  • moss;
  • species cover;
  • Sphagnum capillifolium;
  • visible damage;
  • Whim peat bog

Abstract

Although the effects of atmospheric nitrogen deposition on species composition are relatively well known, the roles of the different forms of nitrogen, in particular gaseous ammonia (NH3), have not been tested in the field. Since 2002, we have manipulated the form of N deposition to an ombrotrophic bog, Whim, on deep peat in southern Scotland, with low ambient N (wet + dry = 8 kg N ha−1 yr−1) and S (4 kg S ha−1 yr−1) deposition. A gradient of ammonia (NH3, dry N), from 70 kg N ha−1 yr−1 down to background, 3–4 kg N ha−1 yr−1 was generated by free air release. Wet ammonium (NH4+, wet N) was provided to replicate plots in a fine rainwater spray (NH4Cl at +8, +24, +56 kg N ha−1 yr−1). Automated treatments are coupled to meteorological conditions, in a globally unique, field experiment. Ammonia concentrations were converted to NH3-N deposition (kg N ha−1) using a site/vegetation specific parameterization. Within 3 years, exposure to relatively modest deposition of NH3, 20–56 kg NH3-N ha−1 yr−1 led to dramatic reductions in species cover, with almost total loss of Calluna vulgaris, Sphagnum capillifolium and Cladonia portentosa. These effects appear to result from direct foliar uptake and interaction with abiotic and biotic stresses, rather than via effects on the soil. Additional wet N by contrast, significantly increased Calluna cover after 5 years at the 56 kg N dose, but reduced cover of Sphagnum and Cladonia. Cover reductions caused by wet N were significantly different from and much smaller than those caused by equivalent dry N doses. The effects of gaseous NH3 described here, highlight the potential for ammonia to destroy acid heathland and peat bog ecosystems. Separating the effects of gaseous ammonia and wet ammonium deposition, for a peat bog, has significant implications for regulatory bodies and conservation agencies.