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Changes in plant species richness and productivity in response to decreased nitrogen inputs in grassland in southern England

This paper, published in a Special Issue of the journal Ecological Indicators to mark 20 years of data collection at ECN terrestrial sites, focusses on changes in grassland plant species diversity at Wytham, southern England, before and after a transition from conventional to organic farming.
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Pallett, DW., Pescott, OL. and Shafer, SM. (2016). Changes in plant species richness and productivity in response to decreased nitrogen inputs in grassland in southern England. Ecological Indicators68, 73-81. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.12.024.

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Biomass production and plant species diversity in grassland in southern England was monitored before and after a change from conventional to organic farming. Our 18-year study, part of the UK's Environmental Change Network long-term monitoring programme, showed that the cessation of artificial fertiliser use on grassland after conversion to organic farming resulted in a decrease in biomass production and an increase in plant species richness. Grassland productivity decreased immediately after fertiliser application ceased, and after two years the annual total biomass production had fallen by over 50%. In the subsequent decade, total annual grassland productivity did not change significantly, and yields reached 31–66% of the levels recorded pre-management change. Plant species richness that had remained stable during the first 5 years of our study under conventional farming, increased by 300% over the following 13 years under organic farm management. We suggest that the change in productivity is due to the altered composition of species within the plots. In the first few years after the change in farming practice, high yielding, nitrogen-loving plants were outcompeted by lower yielding grasses and forbs, and these species remained in the plots in the following years. This study shows that grassland can be converted from an environment lacking in plant species diversity to a relatively species-rich pasture within 10–15 years, simply by stopping or suspending nitrogen additions. We demonstrate that the trade-off for increasing species richness is a decrease in productivity. Grassland in the UK is often not only managed from a conservation perspective, but to also produce a profitable yield. By considering the species composition and encouraging specific beneficial species such as legumes, it may be possible to improve biomass productivity and reduce the trade-off.