Limited recovery of soil organic carbon and soil biophysical functions after old field restoration in an agricultural landscape

Tina Parkhurst, Rachel J. Standish, Suzanne M. Prober

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    The conversion of woodland ecosystems to agricultural landscapes has led to unprecedented losses of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning globally. Unsustainable agricultural practices have contributed to the degradation of soil's physical and biogeochemical properties. Ecological restoration of unproductive agricultural land is imperative for reversing land degradation and ameliorating the degrading effects of agriculture on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. However, it is unclear to what extent common restoration activities, such as tree planting, can facilitate the recovery of ecosystem condition and in particular, improve soil physical, biogeochemical and biotic components. Here, we investigated how the cessation of cropping, followed by tree planting, affected soil carbon concentrations and key biophysical soil functions. Data were collected across 10 sites a decade after the replanting of woody species on old fields in semi-arid Western Australia. We applied a chronosequence approach and measured soil functions in fallow cropland (restoration starting point), 10-year-old planted old fields and intact woodland reference sites (restoration target point). We stratified sampling between open areas and patches under trees in planted old fields and reference woodlands to account for inherent biophysical differences. Soils under planted trees recovered to some extent, having reduced soil compaction and higher soil penetration depth in comparison with the fallow cropland. However, soils under trees in planted old fields did not reach woodland reference conditions for these properties. Moreover, recovery was not evident for other soil physical, biogeochemical and biotic components such as soil organic carbon, soil moisture, leaf litter and woody debris decomposition rates. Limited recovery of soil functions may be at least partly explained by time lags associated with slow growth rates of planted trees in dry ecosystems. Our study shows that the legacy of cropping can persist over long timeframes in semi-arid regions, with modest signs of woodland recovery beginning to emerge 10 years after tree planting.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere13519
    Number of pages14
    JournalAustral Ecology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


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