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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2014

Aboveground and belowground legacies of native Sami land use on boreal forest in northern Sweden 100 years after abandonment

Freschet, Gregoire; Östlund, Lars; Kichenin, Emilie; Wardle, David


Human activities that involve land-use change often cause major transformations to community and ecosystem properties both aboveground and belowground, and when land use is abandoned, these modifications can persist for extended periods. However, the mechanisms responsible for rapid recovery vs. long-term maintenance of ecosystem changes following abandonment remain poorly understood. Here, we examined the long-term ecological effects of two remote former settlements, regularly visited for similar to 300 years by reindeer-herding Sami and abandoned similar to 100 years ago, within an old-growth boreal forest that is considered one of the most pristine regions in northern Scandinavia. These human legacies were assessed through measurements of abiotic and biotic soil properties and vegetation characteristics at the settlement sites and at varying distances from them. Low-intensity land use by Sami is characterized by the transfer of organic matter towards the settlements by humans and reindeer herds, compaction of soil through trampling, disappearance of understory vegetation, and selective cutting of pine trees for fuel and construction. As a consequence, we found a shift towards early successional plant species and a threefold increase in soil microbial activity and nutrient availability close to the settlements relative to away from them. These changes in soil fertility and vegetation contributed to 83% greater total vegetation productivity, 35% greater plant biomass, and 23% and 16% greater concentrations of foliar N and P nearer the settlements, leading to a greater quantity and quality of litter inputs. Because decomposer activity was also 40% greater towards the settlements, soil organic matter cycling and nutrient availability were further increased, leading to likely positive feedbacks between the aboveground and belowground components resulting from historic land use. Although not all of the activities typical of Sami have left visible residual traces on the ecosystem after 100 years, their low-intensity but long-term land use at settlement sites has triggered a rejuvenation of the ecosystem that is still present. Our data demonstrates that aboveground-belowground interactions strongly control ecosystem responses to historical human land use and that medium- to long-term consequences of even low-intensity human activities must be better accounted for if we are to predict and manage ecosystems succession following land-use abandonment.


aboveground-belowground linkages; nutrient resorption; soil and vegetation properties; past land use; litter decomposition; ecosystem net primary productivity (NPP); reindeer-herding Sami; nutrient cycling; long-term legacy; plant-soil feedbacks

Published in

2014, Volume: 95, number: 4, pages: 963-977