Changes in traditional agricultural systems in Europe in recent decades have led to widespread abandonment and colonization of various habitats by shrubs and trees. We combined several vegetation databases to test whether patterns of changes in plant diversity after land abandonment in different habitats followed similar pathways. The impacts of land abandonment and subsequent woody colonization on vegetation composition and plant traits were studied in five semi-natural open habitats and two arable habitats in six regions of Europe. For each habitat, vegetation surveys were carried out in different stages of succession using either permanent or non-permanent plots. Consecutive stages of succession were defined on a physiognomic basis from initial open stages to late woody stages. Changes in vegetation composition, species richness, numbers of species on Red Lists, plant strategy types, Ellenberg indictor values of the vegetation, Grime CSR strategy types and seven ecological traits were assessed for each stage of the successional pathway. Abandonment of agro-pastoral land-use and subsequent woody colonization were associated with changes in floristic composition. Plant richness varied according to the different habitats and stages of succession, but semi-natural habitats differed from arable fields in several ecological traits and vegetation responses. Nevertheless, succession occurred along broadly predictable pathways. Vegetation in abandoned arable fields was characterized by a decreasing importance of R-strategists, annuals, seed plants with overwintering green leaves, insect-pollinated plants with hemi-rosette morphology and plants thriving in nutrient-rich conditions, but an increase in species considered as endangered according to the Red Lists. Conversely, changes in plant traits with succession within the initially-open semi-natural habitats showed an increase in plants thriving in nutrient-rich conditions, stress-tolerant plants and plants with sexual and vegetative reproduction, but a sharp decrease in protected species. In conclusion, our study showed a set of similarities in responses of the vegetation in plant traits after land abandonment, but we also highlighted differences between arable fields and semi-natural habitats, emphasizing the importance of land-use legacy.
Prevosto, B., Kuiters, L., Bernhardt-Römermann, M., Dölle, M., Schmidt, W., Hoffmann, M., Uytvanck, J., Bohner, A., Kreiner, D., Stadler, J., Klotz, S., Brandl, R. (2011): Impacts of Land Abandonment on Vegetation: Successional Pathways in European Habitats. Folia Geobot 46: 303-325