Evaluating management interventions in small populations of a perennial herb Primula vulgaris using spatio-temporal analyses of point patterns.
In high-intensity agricultural landscapes, small landscape elements such as hedgerows, ditch banks, and rows of pollard trees may represent the last refuge of many plant and animal species, some of them being rare or even threatened with extinction. However, due to their small size and low habitat quality, long-term population survival cannot be ascertained and often active management is needed to maintain viable populations of species forced to survive in these small landscape elements. Population models are needed to assess the threats to species at risk and to evaluate alternative management actions. Here, we present a methodology to evaluate management interventions using spatio-temporal analyses of point patterns. We apply this method to several populations of primrose Primula vulgaris in Flanders, where it is rare and predominantly occurs along ditch banks. The effects of ditch bank clearing on the establishment success of seedlings was investigated by comparing spatial patterns of seedling recruitment, survival and mortality between populations that were grazed and populations that were severely disturbed by mechanical clearing of ditch banks followed by annual mowing. A total of 884 seedlings were mapped and monitored during 4 consecutive years (1999-2002). In all populations, plants showed significant clustering, but in cleared sites only seedlings were significantly clustered around adults. Spatial patterns of mortality varied according to the management intervention. In grazed sites, mortality was almost random, whereas in cleared sites we found clear evidence for strong negative density-dependent mortality. There was no evidence that the presence of adults affected survival of recruits in any of the sites studied. Synthesis and applications. This study shows that the analysis of spatial point patterns contributes to our understanding of the population dynamics of plant species occurring in different environments. The approach can be broadly applied to other plant species to elucidate the processes that determine the number of individuals that establish and persist into later life stages and will help conservation managers to refine management strategies intended to conserve or restore plant populations. In the case of P. vulgaris, increasing the availability of microsites is most likely to result in increased growth rates, as it results in increased recruitment and establishment of recruits.