1. In England, the loss of lowland heathland, a habitat of global conservation importance, is primarily due to the invasion of birch and pine. This encroachment has been researched in depth from a plant perspective but little is known about the role of mycorrhizal fungi. In lowland heathlands the resident dwarf shrubs form ericoid mycorrhizas whereas invading trees form ectomycorrhizas. Therefore, tree encroachment into heathlands can be regarded as the replacement of a resident mycorrhizal community by an invading one.
2. This study examined how fungi form mycorrhizas with Betula and Pinus in lowland heathlands. We addressed the question of whether there are mycorrhizal fungi that mediate invasion using a molecular ecology approach to compare the mycorrhizal inoculum potential of soil at three levels of invasion (uninvaded heathland, invaded heathland and woodland) and the fungi forming mycorrhizas on tree seedlings and trees across diverse sites.
3. We show that in lowland heathlands: (i) seedlings have severely limited access to ectomycorrhizal fungi relative to woodlands, (ii) there are few keystone spore-dispersed ectomycorrhizal fungi that can mediate tree invasion, (iii) tree seedlings can remain non-mycorrhizal for at least one year when no inoculum is present, even near saplings, and (iv) mycorrhizal seedlings achieve greater biomass than non-mycorrhizal seedlings. Within uninvaded heathland we detected only Rhizopogon luteolus, Suillus variegatus, S. bovinus (Pinus symbionts) and Laccaria proxima (primarily a Betula symbiont).
4.Synthesis. Overall, ectomycorrhizal inoculum in lowland heathlands is rare; most tree seedlings growing in heathland soil are not mycorrhizal due to limited spore dispersal, poorly developed spore banks and weak common mycorrhizal networks. These seedlings can persist awaiting mycorrhization to boost their growth.