Question: Did the composition of the herb layer of a deciduous forest on loamy soils sensitive to soil acidification change between 1954 and 2000? How are these change related to the abandonment of traditional coppice-with-standards forest management and increased soil acidification?
Location: Central Belgium (Europe).
Methods: Twenty semi-permanent phytosociological quadrats from an ancient deciduous forest (Meerdaal forest) were carefully selected out of a total of 70 plots dating from 1954 and were revisited in 2000. Species composition and soil pH H2O were recorded using an analogous methodology. The studied period coincides with a period of forest conversion from coppice-with-standards towards a high forest structure and with an increase in acidifying and eutrophying deposition.
Results: Between 1954 and 2000, species composition of the herb layer changed significantly. Redundancy analysis pointed to increased shade resulting from shifts in cover and species composition of the shrub and tree layer as the main driving force. Soil acidity increased and the majority of plots entered the aluminium buffer range, which potentially affected herb layer composition. Observations at the species level, especially a strong decrease in cover of the vernal species Anemone nemorosa supported this hypothesis.
Conclusions: Our results show significant shifts in the forest herb layer in less than five decades. These shifts were related to an alteration in the traditional forest management regime and increased soil acidity. Whereas the effect of a changed management regime can be mitigated, soil acidification is less reversible. Testing the generality of these patterns on more extensive data sets is certainly needed.