1. Disturbance is one of the most important factors structuring the taxonomic and functional composition of vegetation. Vegetation resistance or resilience to disturbance depends on local environmental conditions, further modifying the pool of species and traits. This paper aims to understand how disturbance and local environment combine to affect the resistance and resilience of vegetation.
2. A functional-trait approach was used to detect traits related to vegetation resistance and resilience, and trait attributes of individual species responding to disturbance. Trait approaches enable comparison of vegetation responses across biogeographic regions containing different species pools.
3. At 35 European forest and grassland sites, experimental disturbance (human trampling) was applied at five intensities. Indices for resistance and resilience were calculated, based on total vegetation cover, and related to climate and local site factors. Additional indices were calculated for the most common species to demonstrate traits that confer resistance and resilience to disturbance.
4. Vegetation resistance was related to occurrence of species with traits selected by a history of intensive land use (smaller leaf size, rosette plant form) and local environmental conditions. Vegetation resilience, however, was associated with ecosystem properties that facilitate higher growth rates. Resilient vegetation occurred where irradiation was higher (grasslands, open forests) with sufficient water availability (summer precipitation, humidity) and comprised of species with traits related to enhanced growth rates (increased specific leaf area, decreased leaf dry matter content).
5. Synthesis. This pan-European disturbance experiment demonstrates that different drivers (land use or climate) of vegetation response show different mechanistic responses to physical disturbance. Resistance depends on the functional composition of predominant species in the assemblage, which is strongly affected by land-use history; resilience is directly connected to growth rates affected by climate. We argue for the inclusion of land-use history and climate into the planning process for visitor management, especially in areas of high conservation interest.