The relative importance of nitrogen deposition as a driver of Racomitrium heath species composition and richness across Europe

Heather F. Armitage, Andrea J. Britton*, René van der Wal, Sarah J. Woodin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Nitrogen (N) deposition is a major global threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function. Increased deposition rates are linked to reduced species richness and vegetation change in a wide range of habitats. Here, we use gradients of N deposition and climate across thirty-six European sites to examine impacts of N deposition relative to those of climatic, soil and grazing conditions, on composition of Racomitrium heath, a moss-dominated mountain summit community of high nature conservation value. Nitrogen deposition was the second most important driver of community composition after climatic conditions at this European scale, explaining 15% of variability, and was more important than soil factors or current grazing. Along a gradient of 0.6-39.6kgNha-1y-1species richness declined by 5speciesm-2 and there was a 30% shift in cover from mosses to graminoids. Such large changes in dominant plant functional type have potential to impact on other biota and on habitat functions including nutrient cycling and hydrology. Importantly, changes in community composition were seen across the whole range of N deposition, with impacts on sensitive components such as lichens seen at rates of N deposition only slightly above background. No evidence was found for a threshold deposition rate or critical load below which no change in composition occurred. This study demonstrates the powerful role of N deposition as a driver of plant community change relative to other factors, and highlights the sensitivity of alpine habitats adapted to low background N deposition levels.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)224-231
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Conservation
Early online date17 Feb 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014

Bibliographical note

The authors are very grateful to Rob Ashlin, Bruna Campos, Edward Graham, Tim Roads and especially Richard Hewison for their invaluable help with fieldwork. We are indebted to Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England and Countryside Council for Wales for help with locating UK sites and to the numerous landowners and managers for their permission to carry out the study. Thanks are also due to Per Arild Aarrestad, Anna-Maria Fosaa and Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir for help in locating European sites. The study was made possible with financial support from Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Government Rural and Environmental Research and Analysis Directorate, and the University of Aberdeen.


  • Alpine
  • Critical load
  • Diversity
  • Graminoids
  • Mosses
  • Vegetation change


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