Spatial relationships between intensive land cover and residual plant species diversity in temperate farmed landscapes.
In temperate farmed landscapes conservation policies increasingly emphasize large-scale reductions in land-use intensity. Yet despite a managed reversion to more favourable abiotic conditions, depleted regional species pools may prevent the re-assembly of target communities. Using national-scale survey data recorded across Great Britain in 1998, we investigated the extent to which grassland indicator plant species persisted on potential refuge habitats across a spatial gradient of intensive land cover in lowland 1-km squares. These habitats comprised road verges, field boundaries, watercourse banks and small biotope fragments. Intensive land cover comprised built land, arable and improved grassland. The rate of reduction in indicator species richness across the intensive land cover gradient was significantly lower in all potential refuge features than in surrounding fields and larger areas of habitat. The best refuge locations were watercourse banks and small biotopes. In both cases, indicator species richness was higher than adjacent fields at the lowest intensive land cover and stayed higher as intensive land cover increased. However, as intensive land cover increased, plant traits associated with higher nutrient availability were more prominently represented among indicator species. Although richer assemblages of indicator species persisted on refuge features, population sizes are likely to be small, because of species-area effects, and also vulnerable to nutrient surpluses and reduced or inappropriate disturbance. Synthesis and applications. Across the British lowlands, linear landscape features and small habitat fragments can provide limited safe havens for unimproved grassland plant species. However, the identity of refuge features and their species richness and composition are likely to vary with local conditions. Three activities are therefore paramount in assessing their role in larger scale extensification schemes: (i) development of rapid ways of assessing the plant diversity and distribution of refuge features in local areas; (ii) quantification of the risks posed to the viability of residual source populations through implementation of different options for incorporating them into extensification schemes; (iii) maximization of scheme performance by targeting landscapes with sufficient residual diversity to enable increases in population size of the target species in the medium term.