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Interannual variability, stability and resilience in UK plant communities

This paper, published in a Special Issue of the journal Ecological Indicators to mark 20 years of data collection at ECN terrestrial sites, examines year-to-year variability of plant communities, and uses data from 10 ECN terrestrial sites
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© 2016 Elsevier Ltd.
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Morecroft, MD., Bealey, CE., Scott, WA. and Taylor, ME. (2016). Interannual variability, stability and resilience in UK plant communities. Ecological Indicators68, 63-72. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.11.040.

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Plant communities are often assumed to be stable on a year-to-year basis. We present evidence that species composition in permanent quadrats changes considerably between years at a range of Environmental Change Network sites across the UK. The extent of this variability varies with habitat type. Communities associated with low disturbance levels and low agricultural inputs, particularly moorland (upland grass and heath) and bog communities, are most stable.

Inter-annual variability should, therefore, be considered in designing monitoring schemes to ensure that frequency of recording is sufficient to avoid short-term fluctuations obscuring long-term trends.

More diverse communities were more stable, with less species turnover between years. However, diverse communities also tended to be dominated by slow-growing, slow-reproducing plants, adapted to low nutrient conditions, identified as ‘stress tolerators’ in the Grime CSR scheme and low Ellenberg N values. Species compositional stability was more strongly correlated with these indices of plant functional types than species richness. Nevertheless, a significant effect of species richness could be identified, even after other causes of variation were accounted for.

More stable communities in our study are likely to be resilient to low levels of environmental change, although they may still change, and possibly change dramatically if critical ‘tipping points’ are reached.