Restoration of bracken-invaded Calluna vulgaris heathlands: effects on vegetation dynamics and non-target species.
The coastal heathlands of north-western Europe are endangered habitats of great conservation value. Invasion by bracken Pteridium aquilinum is a major challenge for conservation and restoration of these heathlands, including the under-studied northern regions. Today, the herbicide asulam is the most widely applied bracken control measure, but increasing focus on organic farming and nature conservation calls for alternative, preferably mechanical, approaches. In a 7-year replicated field experiment in western Norway, we investigated efficiencies of the four bracken control measures asulam, Gratil, annual cutting and biannual cutting, in restoring the characteristic heathland vegetation structure and species composition. We specifically tested herbicide effects on diversity and composition of non-target species. Effects of treatments over time were evaluated by repeated measures ANOVA, and for multivariate data, Principal Response Curves. Our results show that UK based control methods are largely applicable to bracken at its northern limit in the European heathland habitat. Asulam resulted in the fastest reduction in cover but cutting proved equally efficient long-term. Community compositions progressed towards desired heathland vegetation, but successional trajectories differed. Asulam had unintended effects on a number of heathland species not predictable by species characteristics or functional groups. Gratil failed to have any long-term effects. In summary, cutting is as efficient as herbicide application in reducing bracken, and more so in restoring northern heathland vegetation over time.