The establishment of heathland vegetation on ex-arable land: The response of Calluna vulgaris to soil acidification

Lawson, Clare S.; Ford, Martin A.; Mitchley, Jonathan and Warren, John M. (2004). The establishment of heathland vegetation on ex-arable land: The response of Calluna vulgaris to soil acidification. Biological Conservation, 116(3) pp. 409–416.



The UK Biodiversity Action Plan has identified the creation of lowland heathland as an important objective. Heathland restoration studies have identified soil pH, elevated soil nutrients and large weed seed banks as major problems in the restoration of heathland vegetation on ex-arable land. Heathland vegetation is usually found on nutrient-poor acidic soils. Creating acidic soil conditions on ex-arable sites thus may produce a suitable environment for the establishment of heath vegetation. Soil acidification by the addition of sulphur has been shown to reduce the soil pH and the availability of nutrients in arable soils. Aseries of experiments was established to investigate the effects of soil acidification using sulphur on the establishment of Calluna vulgaris and the development of weed vegetation. The application of sulphur at 0.24 kg m-2 to an arable soil was found to increase the survival rate of C. vulgaris cuttings planted in it. The mechanism of increased C. vulgaris survival appeared to be by sulphur application significantly reducing the cover of arable weeds arising from the soil seed bank.Higher rates of sulphur application (0.36 and 0.48 kg m-2) resulted in the death of many C. vulgaris plants.However C. vulgaris seedlings were able to establish successfully on these ex-arable soils within 18–24 months following the addition of these levels of sulphur. The application of sulphur appears to offer a practical solution to heathland creation on ex-arable land. However, it may be necessary to provide an interval of between 18 and 24 months between the application of sulphur and the addition of C. vulgaris plants or seeds for the successful establishment of heathland vegetation.

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