Blowing in the wind? Nutrient enrichment of remnant woodlands in an agricultural landscape
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Increasing fertiliser use in agricultural landscapes is likely to threaten the viability of remnant native vegetation in many parts of the world. Australia’s prime grain production landscapes have nutrient poor soils, which formerly supported semi-arid woodland. The ecological function and capacity for regeneration of these remnants may be particularly susceptible to nutrient enrichment. The key sources of nutrients are wind and water deposition from crop fertilisation, and manure and feed from sheep. We hypothesised that these sources would result in unequal deposition of nutrients within and among remnant vegetation patches. We surveyed soil nutrients (Total N, Available P and K, C:N ratio, and soil pH) in the edges and interiors of 60 remnant woodland patches of various sizes, and in adjacent cultivated paddocks. Nutrient load was negatively correlated with remnant size and patterns were particularly strong for available P. Small remnant patches (<3 ha) were accumulation zones for nutrients, with levels comparable or higher than within crop lands. The patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that small remnants are strongly enriched as a result of being used for livestock shelter. In larger remnants, the primary cause of enrichment is consistent with edge accumulation of nutrients due to wind and water movement. In large patches, remnant edges, particularly the windward edge, were elevated compared to interiors of large patches. In these semi-arid crop lands, current trends in intensification of cropping and a shift away from livestock may reduce the input of nutrients to small patches but increase the nutrient threat to larger remnants.