Competition response of European beech Fagus sylvatica L. varies with tree size and abiotic stress: minimizing anthropogenic disturbances in forests


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  1. New forest management approaches aim to ensure high biodiversity and climatic adaptability. Silvicultural practices can alter tree–tree interactions and thus influence forest structure and composition. However, knowledge of the interacting effects of competitive and abiotic stress in tree communities is still limited.
  2. We assessed growth dynamics of European beech Fagus sylvatica in oligo- to eutrophic lowland beech forests by quantifying variation in the importance and intensity of competitive interactions among adult trees along a productivity gradient defined by nutrient availability and hydrological characteristics. We further predicted changes in competition indices with various levels of crowding for different forest types. Basal area growth of 1819 canopy trees was analysed using forest inventory data.
  3. Competition response of adult trees was inconsistent among forest types. For small timber trees, the intensity (absolute effect) and importance (effect relative to abiotic constraints) of competition decreased with increasing abiotic stress. Growth responses of medium and large timber trees, however, revealed an opposite trend. Thus, in tree communities, competition effects did not follow a general pattern, because tree maturation altered the responsiveness of trees to environmental stress.
  4. Resource dependency of competition effects was most pronounced for large timber trees, with lowest sensitivity to changes in crowding conditions occurring on fertile sites. For small and medium timber trees, however, competition effects were strongest in dense stands, with lowest sensitivity to changes in crowding conditions on resource-limited sites.
  5. Synthesis and applications. Tree–tree interactions in beech forests showed a clear pattern which depended on tree maturation and resource supply. This highlights the importance of considering tree size-related changes along environmental gradients in regional growth models. Our findings indicate that management practices could facilitate both timber production and nature conservation demands by adapting thinning approaches to age- and resource-related tree growth patterns. We propose a distinct reduction in thinning intensity, particularly for larger beech trees growing on sites with optimum below-ground resources. This would increase the permanent stand volumes and promote natural stand dynamics, which in turn would benefit biodiversity typical of old-growth beech forest ecosystems.