Abstract The annual litterfall and decomposition rate of litter in three semi-arid vegetation communities (forest, mallee and broom) in the Pilliga State Forests, New South Wales, Australia, were measured over a period of 3 years. Annual litterfall was found to vary widely between the communities, ranging from 1005 to 3409 kg ha−1 year−1. Decomposition rates were measured and the half lives obtained ranged from 2. 5 to 5. 3 years. In many forests fire removes much of the accumulated litter at regular intervals. Two of the three study sites (the forest and mallee) had reached steady state after 36 years of litter accumulation after fire, while the broom, with only 20 years accumulation, was not in steady state. Between fires decomposition of the liner dominates. In the mallee soil fauna were most active, burying the litter under mineral soil before comminution commenced, demonstrating a cycling of litter which differs markedly from that in more humid climates.