Fresh insights into long‐term changes in flora, vegetation, land use and soil erosion in the karstic environment of the Burren, western Ireland


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January 2009


1. The study focuses on species‐rich, upland, heathy vegetation with arctic‐alpine floristic affinities and Sesleria grasslands in the karstic Burren region, western Ireland. The investigations aimed at reconstructing the long‐term development of these high conservation‐value communities and the role of farming in their formation and long‐term survival. 2. The methods used included pollen analysis and 14C‐dating of short monoliths and investigation of grykes (fissures in karstic limestone) for evidence of soil erosion. Special attention was paid to fossil, coprophilous fungal spores as indicators of local grazing. The strong local character of the pollen records facilitated identification of inter‐site differences as well as regional patterns. It is shown that open pine woodland characterized the Cappanawalla uplands between c. 1500 BC and 500 BC. It is proposed that such woodlands, with floristic affinities to Scandinavian open pine woodlands on calcareous soils, provided a suitable environment for the present‐day, open heath vegetation with species such as Dryas octopetala , Arctostaphylos uva‐ursi , Geranium sanguineum and Empetrum nigrum . 3. Burning of vegetation as a management tool was important in the uplands over most of the last two millennia. Firing seems to have ceased with the onset of more intensive grazing regimes in the 18th century. 4. Synthesis . Upland palaeoarchives, derived from shallow peaty deposits, show that the upland Burren supported mainly plagioclimax Corylus‐dominated woody vegetation and grasslands from c. 1500 BC (beginning of present record), until possibly as late as the 17th century AD. In the uplands of the north‐western Burren, open, species‐rich pinewoods with hazel dominated. The northern‐arctic elements in the present‐day upland flora survived clearances, involving initially Pinus sylvestris (c. 500 BC) and subsequently Corylus avellana (c. AD 1600). Colluvial material retrieved from grykes supports the idea of considerable soil loss occurring as late as the first and early


Biogeography, Coprophilous Fungal Spores, Environmental Change, Karst, Land Use, Late Holocene, Non‐Pollen Palynomorphs, Pollen Analysis, Soil Erosion, Vegetation Dynamics

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Journal of Ecology, Vol. 97, no. 5 (2009).