A matter of time: Recovery of plant species diversity in wild plant communities at declining nitrogen deposition

  • Frank Berendse (Creator)
  • Rob Geerts (Creator)
  • Wim Th Elberse (Creator)
  • Thiemo Martijn Bezemer (Creator)
  • Paul Goedhart (Creator)
  • Wei Xue (Creator)
  • Erik Noordijk (Creator)
  • Cajo ter Braak (Creator)
  • Hein Korevaar (Creator)



Aim: High levels of nitrogen deposition have been responsible for important losses of plant species diversity. It is often assumed that reduction of ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions will result in the recovery of the former biodiversity. In Western Europe N deposition peaked between 1980 and 1988 and declined thereafter. In a 60-year experiment in hay meadows we tested the hypothesis that increasing and declining nitrogen deposition had negative, respectively, positive effects on plant species diversity. Location: Wageningen, The Netherlands Method: Duplicated plots received different fertilization treatments from 1958 onwards (control, Ca, K, P, PK, N, NPK). Productivity, soil pH and species composition were measured at regular intervals. In the control plots the correlations between N deposition, diversity, production and soil acidification were analysed. Subsequently, we tested whether the treatment effects (e.g., N addition and liming) confirmed the hypothesized interactions. Results: In the control plots soil pH, species diversity and the abundance of legumes and short forbs declined between 1958 and 1987 when atmospheric N deposition was high but recovered after 1987 when N deposition decreased. However, also in the N addition plots species diversity recovered partly after 1987, although the soil pH of the acidified soils in these plots did not. In addition, also in the limed plots diversity decreased rapidly during the first 30 years while in this treatment soil acidification was more than compensated. Main conclusions: We conclude that declining N deposition resulted in the recovery of plant species diversity, but not in recovery of the former species composition. Time appears to be an additional, but crucial factor for the recovery of diverse, flowering meadows. Species not adapted to the new management conditions created at the start of the experiment disappeared during the first decades, while species fit for the new environment needed many years to establish.
Date made available10 Apr 2021
PublisherWageningen University & Research


  • natural sciences

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