Aliens or natives: who are the ‘thugs’ in British woods?
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The invasion of native habitats by exotic, or alien, plant species has received considerable attention recently from policy, research, and practical conservation management perspectives. However, a new hypothesis for species dynamics in Britain suggests that a small number of aggressive native plant species (termed ‘thugs’) may have an equal, or greater, impact on native species and habitats than exotic species. Here, we examine this hypothesis using multivariate techniques with field-layer cover data collected during a country-wide survey of British woodlands. Multivariate analysis of these data identified a north-south gradient on the first axis, and that 20 of the 25 National Vegetation Classification woodland types were sampled within the study. The most abundant field-layer species included three of the proposed native ‘thugs’, i.e. Rubus fruticosus, Pteridium aquilinum and Hedera helix in addition to the native woodland indicator species Mercurialis perennis. Variation partitioning was used to compare the relative importance of native field-layer ‘thug’ species with invading alien shrub and tree species relative to other environmental drivers. The variation in the field-layer data-set explained by the three native ‘thug’ species was significant, but they explained a relatively small proportion of the variation relative to other environmental variables (climate, soil, management factors etc.). They did, however, explain almost four times as much variation as the three alien species that were significantly correlated with field-layer species composition (Acer pseudoplatanus, Impatiens glandulifera, Rhododendron ponticum). The results of this analysis suggest that the field-layer of British woodlands is impacted as much by native ‘thug’ species, as it is from ‘aliens’. Concern about the impact of these native ‘thug’ species has been reported previously, but their impact has not previously been compared to the impact of invading aliens. It is hoped that this analysis will do two things, first to act as a sound baseline for assessing any changing balance that should occur in the future, and second, to prompt both ecologists and conservationists to develop woodland management policies based on sound science.