Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen has become a serious concern for nature conservation managers and policy makers. It has the potential to reduce species richness, increase the graminoid component of the sward, encourage species typical of more fertile conditions and alter the soil biogeochemistry of grasslands. Calcifugous grasslands (grasslands found on acid soils) are among the most sensitive to N deposition due to their poorly buffered soils and species typical of nutrient poor environments.
Indicators have an important role to play in detecting the impact of nitrogen deposition on sites of conservation importance and assessing conservation status. This study investigates potential indicators of nitrogen deposition impacts that could be incorporated into site condition monitoring programmes such as the UK Common Standards Monitoring.
Using two national surveys of calcifugous grasslands we examined the potential for using: the presence or absence of indicator species, the cover of indicator species, the species richness and richness of functional groups, and the cover of functional groups as indicators of N deposition impacts. Of all the potential indicators investigated, graminoid:forb ratio was found to be the best indicator of N deposition impacts. It showed a significant relationship to N deposition in both data sets and is quick and easy to assess in the field. Vegetation indicators must be used with caution as there is potential for vegetation management regime and nutrients from other sources to cause similar changes in species composition. Consideration must be given to these before attributing changes to nitrogen deposition.