Can management compensate for atmospheric nutrient deposition in heathland ecosystems?


Werner Härdtle, Institute of Ecology and Environmental Chemistry, University of Lueneburg, Scharnhorststr. 1, 21335 Lueneburg, Germany (fax +49 41316772808; e-mail


  • 1Atmospheric nutrient deposition has contributed to widespread changes in heathlands throughout Europe. As a consequence, management is now being considered as a potential tool with which to compensate for increased nutrient loads. Currently, only limited information is available on the extent to which management measures could compensate for atmospheric nutrient deposition. We hypothesized that low-intensity management measures are not sufficient to counterbalance current nutrient inputs, particularly of nitrogen (N).
  • 2In order to improve heathland management schemes, we evaluated the effectiveness of different management measures in reducing the impact of ongoing atmospheric nutrient loads. We compared the effects of mowing, prescribed burning (low-intensity management) and sod-cutting (high-intensity management) on heathland nutrient budgets [N, calcium (Ca), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and phosphorus (P)] in the Lueneburg Heath nature reserve (north-west Germany). Nutrient balances were calculated by analysing the present-day input, the output as a result of the removal of biomass/humus horizons, and changes in leaching rates.
  • 3Nutrient losses by increased leaching following management measures were negligible compared with nutrient losses caused by the removal of above-ground biomass or humus horizons. The total quantities of nutrients removed by sod-cutting were equivalent to between 37 and 176 years of atmospheric input (for N, 89 years).
  • 4In contrast, the quantities of N removed by mowing and prescribed burning were equivalent to only 5 years of atmospheric input. Thus, heathlands subjected to such treatments will accumulate N in the long term. In addition, output–input ratios for phosphorus (P) exceeded those for N in the mowing and sod-cutting experiments. It is therefore likely that heathlands currently (co-) limited by N will shift to being more P-limited in the long term. This will promote species that are well adapted to P-limited sites (e.g. Molinia caerulea).
  • 5Synthesis and applications. This study shows that low-intensity management cannot compensate for atmospheric N loads in the long term. Consequently, high-intensity management measures are an indispensable tool in preserving a long-term balanced N budget in heathlands. In order to maintain a diverse structure, managers need to combine low- and high-intensity management measures. Prescribed burning proved to be the best means of avoiding an increasing P shortage, because this measure causes very low P outputs.