Long-term changes in lowland calcareous grassland plots using Tephroseris integrifolia subsp. integrifolia as an indicator species

08 Sep 2017

We investigated the changes to calcareous grassland plots within protected sites, and whether Tephroseris integrifolia subsp. integrifolia can act as a useful indicator species for re-visitation studies within vegetation predicted to remain relatively stable. Twenty-two plots located across lowland England and all formerly containing T. integrifolia were re-surveyed following the methodology used in the original survey undertaken in the 1960s. Pseudo-turnover and between-observer bias were minimised by sampling replicate quadrats at each fixed plot using a single surveyor and at a similar time of year as the original survey. Qualitative details concerning grazing management were obtained for all sites. In contrast to other long-term re-visitation studies, all our study plots were intact and retained diverse, herb-rich vegetation, demonstrating the value of site protection. However, there were clear shifts in vegetation composition, most notably where T. integrifolia was absent, as shown by an increase in Ellenberg fertility and moisture signifying nutrient enrichment, and a decrease in the cover of low-growing, light-demanding specialists, with a change likely to be associated predominantly with grazing management. Whereas in the mid-20th century the greatest threat to calcareous grassland was habitat loss, undergrazing or temporary neglect now appears to pose the principal threat. Distinctive species such as T. integrifolia with marked sensitivity to habitat change provide a potentially useful tool for rapid assessment and monitoring of site quality. Focusing monitoring on such species allows non-expert observers to recognise the early stages of habitat degradation, providing, in effect, a “health check” on individual sites and groups of sites.