Aim Lowland woodlands in Europe went through dramatic changes in management in the past century. This article investigates the influence of two key factors, abandonment of coppicing and increased pressure of ungulates, in thermophilous oakwoods. We focused on three interconnected topics: (1) Has the assumed successional trend lead to impoverishment of the vegetation assemblages? (2) Has it resulted in vegetation homogenization? (3) Are the thermophilous oakwoods loosing their original character?
Location Czech Republic, Central Europe.
Methods The vegetation in 46 semi-permanent plots was recorded three times: firstly, shortly after the abandonment of coppicing (1953) and then, after four to six decades of secondary succession and strong game impact (1992 and 2006). Overall trends and changes in species spectra were analysed.
Results There is a marked successional shift towards species-poorer communities growing in cooler, moister and nutrient-richer conditions. The change was significantly different in parts affected and unaffected by high numbers of ungulates yet only for herbs, not the woody species. However, observed change in species composition was not accompanied by significant homogenization process that is the general process reported from elsewhere. A sharp decline in plant species typical for thermophilous woodland communities and in endangered species indicates that the original character of the woodland has been gradually lost.
Main conclusions Thermophilous oakwoods have been largely replaced by mesic forests. Lowland oakwoods in continental parts of Europe historically depended on active management, which kept the understorey conditions light and warm. Successional processes in the 20th century caused a critical loss of species diversity at various spatial levels. However, artificially high numbers of ungulates, which otherwise have a negative impact, probably held up succession, so that the changes may still be reversible.