Grassland cutting regimes affect soil properties, and consequently vegetation composition and belowground plant traits
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Background and aims
Machine mowing, mimicking the traditional hand mowing, is often used as a successful management tool to maintain grassland biodiversity, but few studies have investigated the long-term effects of traditional versus mechanical mowing of plant communities. Machine mowing as opposed to hand mowing causes soil compaction and reduction of soil aeration. In response, we expected strong effects on below-ground plant traits: root aerenchyma formation and superficial root growth, and no specific effects on aboveground traits. Effects were expected to be more pronounced in soils vulnerable to compaction.
We evaluated the changes in above- and belowground plant traits in a long-term (38-year) experiment with annual hand-mowing and machine-mowing management regimes on two different soil types: a coarse structured sandy soil and a finer structured sandy-organic soil
Only on the organic soil, long-term machine mowing leads to lower soil aeration (more compacted soil) and a marked change in the belowground trait distribution of the plant community. Here we find a higher cover of superficially rooting species and marginally significant lower cover of species without morphological adaptations to soil hypoxia, but no effect on species with a high capacity of forming aerenchyma.
Mowing with heavy machines on soils vulnerable to compaction affect the vegetation according to changes in soil physical conditions. This is reflected in a shift towards communities with greater proportion of superficially rooting species. Our results illustrate the sensitivity of grasslands to slight changes in the management regime.