Questions: How does recreational disturbance (human trampling) affect soil characteristics, the performance of the understorey vegetation, and the density and species composition of the soil seed bank in Fagus sylvatica forests?
Location: Suburban forests near Basel, northwestern Switzerland.
Methods: We compared various soil characteristics and the performance of the understorey vegetation in six beech forest areas frequently disturbed by recreational activities with those in six undisturbed control areas, in spring 2003. In the same forest areas, the soil seed bank was investigated using the seedling emergence method. Samples were obtained from soil cores in January 2003.
Results: We found substantial changes in soil compaction, above-ground vegetation and in the soil seed bank due to recreational activities. In frequently visited areas, soil compaction was enhanced which caused a decrease in cover, height and species richness of both herb and shrub layers. Compared with control areas, the number of trampling-tolerant species of the seed bank was significantly higher in disturbed areas, and total species richness tended to be higher in disturbed than in control areas. Furthermore, the similarity in species composition between the above-ground vegetation and seed bank was significant lower in disturbed than in control areas.
Conclusions: The intensive use of suburban forests for recreational activities, mainly picnicking, affects the vegetation of natural beech forests. Our study indicates that a restoration of degraded forest areas from the soil seed bank would result in a substantial change of the vegetation composition.