Questions: Does the diversity of heathland vegetation change when subjected to experimental disturbances such as cutting and nitrogen fertilization? Do changes in the vegetation structure negatively affect the regeneration of the dominant species Calluna vulgaris? Is cutting an alternative method of conserving the diversity and maintaining the structure of heathlands in the Cantabrian Mountains?
Location: Calluna vulgaris heathlands on the southern slopes of the Cantabrian Mountain range, NW Spain.
Methods: A total of 60 plots were treated with different combinations of cutting and twice the estimated atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (56 kg-N·ha−1·yr−1). The changes in the cover values of the species present were monitored over a five year study period. The cover values were used to calculate abundance and species richness.
Results: Fertilizing with nitrogen allows biodiversity to increase over time. However, the greatest biodiversity is associated with the cutting plus fertilization treatment, since cutting allows gaps to be opened that are easily colonized by pioneer annual species, while fertilization mainly favours an increase in the mean number of perennial herbs (graminoids and forbs). Increased perennial herb richness also corresponds to a rise in their cover values. The recovery of the dominant woody species in these communities, Calluna vulgaris, is not impeded by the increase in perennial herbs species' cover values.
Conclusions: In the Calluna vulgaris heathlands studied, cutting plus fertilization allowed an increase in biodiversity over time. No displacement of the dominant woody species, Calluna vulgaris, is observed due to the presence of the perennial herbs. Cutting patches of heathland is recommended as a mechanism for maintaining high vegetation diversity, when grazing is not possible.
Nomenclature: Tutin et al. (1964–1980).