Long-term nitrogen additions increase likelihood of climate stress and affect recovery from wildfire in a lowland heath



Increases in the emissions and associated atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (N) have the potential to cause significant changes to the structure and function of N-limited ecosystems. Here, we present the results of a long-term (13 year) experiment assessing the impacts of N addition (30 kg ha−1 yr−1) on a UK lowland heathland under a wide range of environmental conditions, including the occurrence of prolonged natural drought episodes and a severe summer fire. Our findings indicate that elevated N deposition results in large, persistent effects on Calluna growth, phenology and chemistry, severe suppression of understorey lichen flora and changes in soil biogeochemistry. Growing season rainfall was found to be a strong driver of inter-annual variation in Calluna growth and, although interactions between N and rainfall for shoot growth were not significant until the later phase of the experiment, N addition exacerbated the extent of drought injury to Calluna shoots following naturally occurring droughts in 2003 and 2009. Following a severe wildfire at the experimental site in 2006, heathland regeneration dynamics were significantly affected by N, with a greater abundance of pioneering moss species and suppression of the lichen flora in plots receiving N additions. Significant interactions between climate and N were also apparent post fire, with the characteristic stimulation in Calluna growth in +N plots suppressed during dry years. Carbon (C) and N budgets demonstrate large increases in both above- and below-ground stocks of these elements in N-treated plots prior to the fire, despite higher levels of soil microbial activity and organic matter turnover. Although much of the organic material was removed during the fire, pre-existing treatment differences were still evident following the burn. Post fire accumulation of below-ground C and N stocks was increased rapidly in N-treated plots, highlighting the role of N deposition in ecosystem C sequestration.