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Physical disturbance enhances ecological networks for heathland biota: A multiple taxa experiment

Pedley, SM and Franco, AMA and Pankhurst, T and Dolman, PM (2013) Physical disturbance enhances ecological networks for heathland biota: A multiple taxa experiment. Biological Conservation, 160. pp. 173-182. ISSN 0006-3207

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Abstract

Creation of ecological networks is advocated to increase the viability of regional populations and their resilience to climatic and land-use change with associated habitat fragmentation and loss. However, management of network elements should be appropriate for the regional biota conserved, requiring evidence from multiple taxa. We examined the response of carabids, spiders, ants and vascular plants, to six physical disturbance treatments ranging in intensity plus controls, replicated across 63 plots in a plantation trackway network of a heathland region in England. Over two years, 73 182 invertebrates from 256 species were identified and 23 241 observations of 222 vascular plant species made. Abundance and richness of stenotopic carabids and plants (respectively associated with heath and dune, or unshaded physically-disturbed low-nutrient soils) increased with disturbance intensification. Ant assemblages were similar among treatments and control plots, only differing from heathland sites through addition of generalist species. Spider assemblages were less resilient; overall abundance and richness reduced with greater disturbance. Generalist spiders recovered in year two, although incompletely in the most intensely disturbed treatment. Contrasting responses among taxonomic groups likely reflect differences in dispersal ability. Treatments that merely disrupted vegetation quickly regained plant cover and height, suggesting frequent reapplication will be required to maintain heath specialist species. Turf stripping, the most severe treatment, was quickly colonised by specialist carabid and plant species. Treatments that are more durable may allow stenotopic spider assemblages to develop in contrast to shorter-lived treatments. Effectiveness of early-successional habitat networks within regions supporting European lowland heathland will be enhanced by physical disturbance and turf stripping. Our results emphasise the importance of examining multiple taxonomic groups when assessing management outcomes.

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