The impacts of past land-use on the ecology of an ancient woodland in south-west Ireland

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Cudmore, Aileen V.
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University College Cork
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A multi-disciplinary study was conducted to compare stands of ancient and secondary origin within a single wood, the Gearagh woodland, County Cork. These sites were compared with adjacent areas of grassland, which provided a reference for the former land-use (pasture) of the secondary woodland. A historical study confirmed that while the core of the Gearagh has been subject to minimal human interference, other sections have been cleared in the past for agricultural purposes. Investigations into soil structure and composition showed that soil properties in these secondary woodland areas were significantly altered by this past woodland clearance and conversion to agriculture, while the soil of the ancient woodland showed little signs of disturbance. The vegetation community also differed between the two woodland areas, partly due to altered environmental conditions. Many of the ancient woodland plant species were unable to form a persistent seed bank, while there was increased representation of species associated with more open-habitat conditions in the seed bank of the secondary woodland. While germination of woodland species was low in all sites, overall, seeds tended to germinate more successfully in the ancient woodland. The ancient woodland also provided a suitable habitat for many soil and ground detritivores, most notably enchytraeids, although earthworms were not abundant. Past agricultural use, however, changed the decomposer community considerably, with increased representation of earthworm species and a decline in the abundance of enchytraeids in the secondary stands. In conclusion, the legacies of historical agricultural activities can continue to significantly affect the structure and composition of present-day woodlands so that they may differ considerably from undisturbed ancient woodland stands, even within the same woodland. A greater understanding of the origin, development and ecological functioning of ancient woodlands should aid in determining future conservation and management requirements.
Ancient woodland , Land-use legacies , Soil properties , Seedbank , Decomposers
Cudmore, A.V., 2012.The impacts of past land-use on the ecology of an ancient woodland in south-west Ireland. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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