Abstract Field experiments examined herbaceous seedling emergence and survival in temperate grassy woodlands on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales. Effects of intensity of previous grazing, removal of ground cover by fire or clearing, burial of seeds, grazing and seed theft by ants on seedling emergence and survival were studied in two field experiments. Thirteen species with a range of traits were used in the experiments and their cumulative emergence was compared with laboratory germination studies. Field emergence correlated to laboratory germination but all species had lower emergence in the field. Little natural emergence of native species was observed in the field in unsown treatments. Short-lived forbs had the highest emergence, followed by perennial grasses; rhizomatous graminoids and perennial forbs had the lowest emergence. Soil surface and cover treatments did not markedly enhance emergence suggesting that intertussock spaces were not prerequisites for forb emergence. No consistent pattern of enhanced emergence was found for any treatment combination across all species. Seedling survival varied among species, with perennial grasses and short-lived forbs having the highest seedling mortality. Low mortality rates in the graminoids and rhizomatous forbs appeared partially to compensate for lower seedling emergence. All perennial grasses and some short-lived forbs showed increased risk of mortality with grazing. Differences in emergence and survival of species were related to ground cover heterogeneity, soil surfaces and, to some extent, herbivory. The complexity of these patterns when superimposed on temporal variability suggests that no generalizations can be made about the regeneration niche of herbaceous species groups. Strong recruitment limitation and partitioning of resources in the regeneration niche may reduce competition among native species and explain the high species richness of the herbaceous layer in the temperate grassy communities of eastern Australia.