Impact of land-use change in mountain semi-dry meadows on plants, litter decomposition and earthworms
Traditionally managed mountain grasslands are biodiversity hotspots in central Europe. However, socio-economic trends in agriculture during the last decades have changed farming practices, leaving steep and remote sites abandoned. Especially the abandonment of meadows is well known to directly affect plant and insect diversity. However, not much is known about the effects on soil processes and soil biota. To assess this, we studied four extensively managed (mown once a year, no fertilization) and four abandoned (no mowing, no fertilization) semi-dry meadows in a mountain region in Austria. Plant species richness, plant cover, plant traits, plant biomass, litter decomposition (tea bag index), and earthworm species richness and density were assessed. Additionally, soil temperature, moisture and electrical conductivity were measured. Results showed that managed meadows contained more plant species than abandoned meadows (118 vs. 93 species, respectively). We also observed different plant species assemblages between the two management types. In managed meadows, hemirosette and ruderal plant species were more abundant, while more plant species without rosettes and a higher plant necromass were found in abandoned meadows. Additionally, decomposition rate was higher in abandoned meadows. There was a trend towards higher earthworm densities in managed meadows, but there was no difference in earthworm species richness. We conclude that meadow management has effects on both aboveground vegetation and belowground biota and processes. Both abandoned and extensively managed meadows were important to sustain overall biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in the study region.