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Carbon, fire and seed addition favour native over exotic species in a grassy woodland



Cumberland Plain grassy woodland in western Sydney has been reduced to less than 12% of its pre-settlement distribution; efforts to restore it on cleared and grazed sites within its former distribution have met with mixed success. Elevated soil nitrate levels, coupled with propagule and establishment limitation, have been identified as barriers to restoration in other grasslands. Our study used a factorial combination of carbon addition, fire and native seed addition to test whether these barriers operated on a former Cumberland plain woodland site dominated by exotic perennial grasses. Replicate field plots were established in November 2004; fire plots were burnt in December 2004; carbon was then added as sugar every 3 months until September 2005; and seeds of five native grasses were added in January 2005. Carbon addition significantly reduced soil nitrate, the effect appearing in October 2005. Carbon addition and fire each reduced the total abundance of exotics; when combined, they halved the abundance of the two dominant exotic grasses. Total abundance of native species responded positively to carbon and seed addition, but significant responses to carbon were not detected for individual species. Abundance of two native grasses responded positively to fire; after treatment the native proportion of total abundance rose from 26% on controls to 44–65% on carbon and/or fire plots. Exotic species richness was decreased independently by carbon addition and fire. Native species richness was increased independently by fire and seed addition. All five native grasses established sporadically, but only on carbon and/or fire plots. The three treatments each significantly and independently affected species composition, which showed the greatest change when all three were applied. The three treatments collectively increased the proportion of natives in measures of both plant abundance and species richness. The study confirmed that elevated soil nitrate, plus propagule and recruitment limitation are barriers to restoring this grassy woodland on cleared and grazed sites.