Understory succession in post-agricultural oak plantations: habitat fragmentation affects forest specialists and generalists differently

The herbaceous understory forms the richest stratum in temperate broadleaved forests in terms of plant diversity. Understanding the process of understory succession is thus of critical importance for the development of management guidelines for biodiversity restoration in post-agricultural plantation forests. We studied effects of stand age, forest fragmentation, and soil and canopy conditions on species richness and abundance of four species groups in the understory of post-arable oak plantations in southern Sweden: herbaceous forest specialists, habitat generalists and open-land species, and woody species. The group of forest specialists may approach the richness of continuously forested sites after 60 80 years in non-fragmented plantations, but many forest species were sensitive to habitat fragmentation. Open-land species richness decreased during succession, while the richness of woody species and of generalists remained stable, and was not affected by fragmentation. Abundance of generalists gradually decreased in non-fragmented plantations, probably due to competition from colonizing forest specialists. Soil pH in post-arable stands remained consistently higher than in continuously forested stands, which maintained differences in species composition. The development of a shrub layer seemed to imply a competitive advantage for forest specialists compared to generalist species. For successful recovery of a rich understory, we suggest that post-arable plantations should be established on loamy soils of intermediate to high pH proximate to older forest with source populations, and that a continuous overstory canopy cover of 7080% is maintained by regular light thinnings and promotion of a shrub layer.