The resilience of calcareous and mesotrophic grasslands following disturbance.
Understanding habitat disturbance and recovery is vital for successful conservation management and restoration, particularly of subseral communities with high nature conservation interest and sites subject to unavoidable disturbance pressures, such as that arising from access and recreational activities. Grassland resilience was investigated on the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) in southern England, the largest of the UK military training areas. SPTA contains the greatest expanse of unimproved chalk grassland in north-west Europe, a habitat of particular nature conservation interest. Historical aerial photographs were used to identify 82 calcareous and mesotrophic grassland sites disturbed over a 50-year time period. Vegetation, soils and seed bank data were collected from each old disturbance site. Revegetation time periods following disturbance were compared, and habitat resilience following disturbance investigated using the succession of surface vegetation along the chronosequence, the combined changes of vegetation and soil chemistry, and finally vegetation and seed bank composition. The sampled calcareous grasslands were less resilient following disturbance than the mesotrophic grasslands, with slower colonization of bare ground and target species re-assembly. The mesotrophic grasslands typically took between 30 and 40 years to re-establish following disturbance, whereas calcareous grasslands took at least 50 years. Even after such long time periods, there remained subtle but significant differences between the vegetation composition of the disturbed and undisturbed swards. Perennial forb species, particularly hemicryptophytes, persisted at higher frequencies in swards disturbed 50 years ago than in undisturbed swards. Synthesis and applications. Prediction of habitat resilience following disturbance is dependent on which components of the system are investigated. However, data such as that presented here can help land managers understand how palimpsests of current habitat characteristics may have evolved, and how disturbance regimes may be managed in the future. It is likely that the resilience of grasslands such as those on SPTA may have been overestimated, and perceptions of habitat carrying capacity for disturbance events may require re-evaluation.