1. Calcareous grasslands are communities of high conservation value, often characterized by high plant species richness. These grasslands have experienced a major decline in area throughout Europe, principally resulting from agricultural intensification. Although they have been the focus of extensive previous research, few attempts have been made to examine the long-term dynamics of multiple communities at the landscape scale.
2. To assess long-term change in the structure and composition of a calcareous grassland metacommunity, 88 extant sites first surveyed by R. Good in the 1930s were resurveyed in 2009. Values of α-, β- and γ-diversity were compared between the two surveys, using a one-way analysis of similarity (ANOSIM) and non-metric multidimensional scaling. Elements of metacommunity structure (EMS) analysis was used to identify metacommunity structure, and changes in metacommunity composition were related to plant traits.
3. Analyses indicated that α-diversity increased over time, with mean (±SD) species richness per site increasing from 29.31 ± 7.65 in the 1930s to 40.18 ± 16.41 in 2009. No change in β-diversity was recorded. However, γ-diversity increased, with the total number of species rising from 219 in the 1930s to 280 in 2009. Species composition shifted over time, associated with a decline in ‘stress-tolerant’ species typical of species-rich calcareous grasslands, and an increase in species typical of mesotrophic grasslands. This was associated with an increase in mean Ellenberg N value, suggesting that eutrophication has been a driver of floristic change.
4. Elements of metacommunity structure analysis indicated that the structure of this grassland plant metacommunity was Clementsian at both survey times, indicating species sorting. Metacommunity structure was stable over time, despite changes in α- and γ-diversity. Analysis of potential structuring mechanisms revealed a significant influence of elevation.
5. Synthesis. This investigation provides a rare example of the long-term dynamics of a plant metacommunity. Results indicate that substantial change has occurred in the composition of calcareous grasslands during this time, both at local and regional scales. The investigation provides evidence of the impact of environmental change on immigration and extinction processes operating in calcareous grasslands at different scales, and highlights challenges for their future conservation.