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Four decades of post-agricultural forest development have caused major redistributions of soil phosphorus fractions


Fertilisation of agricultural land causes an accumulation of nutrients in the top soil layer, among which phosphorus (P) is particularly persistent. Changing land use from farmland to forest affects soil properties, but changes in P pools have rarely been studied despite their importance to forest ecosystem development. Here, we describe the redistributions of the P pools in a four-decadal chronosequence of post-agricultural common oak (Quercus robur L.) forests in Belgium and Denmark. The aim was to assess whether forest age causes a repartitioning of P throughout the various soil P pools (labile P, slowly cycling P and occluded P); in particular, we addressed the time-related alterations in the inorganic versus organic P fractions. In less than 40 years of oak forest development, significant redistributions have occurred between different P fractions. While both the labile and the slowly cycling inorganic P fractions significantly decreased with forest age, the organic fractions significantly increased. The labile P pool (inorganic + organic), which is considered to be the pool of P most likely to contribute to plant-available P, significantly decreased with forest age (from >20 to <10% of total P), except in the 0–5 cm of topsoil, where labile P remained persistently high. The shift from inorganic to organic P and the shifts between the different inorganic P fractions are driven by biological processes and also by physicochemical changes related to forest development. It is concluded that the organic labile P fraction, which is readily mineralisable, should be taken into account when studying the bioavailable P pool in forest ecosystems.

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We thank Luc Willems, Greet De bruyn and Elke Declerck for assisting with the field work and the chemical analysis of litter, wood and soil samples. We are also grateful to Andreas Demey, Anne Gallet-Budynek and Mark Bakker for their constructive comments on the paper. We furthermore thank the Forest and Nature Agency of the Flemish Government for their permission to conduct research in the forests. This paper was written while ADS and JS held postdoctoral fellowships, and PDF held a Ph.D. fellowship from the Research Foundation–Flanders (FWO). LB held a Ph.D. fellowship from the Institute for the Promotion of Innovation by Science and Technology in Flanders (IWT). We furthermore thank the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) for financial support. Soil samples in Denmark were sampled under the AFFOREST FP5 EU project (contract number EVK1-CT1999-00020).

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Correspondence to An De Schrijver.

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Communicated by Hormoz BassiriRad.

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De Schrijver, A., Vesterdal, L., Hansen, K. et al. Four decades of post-agricultural forest development have caused major redistributions of soil phosphorus fractions. Oecologia 169, 221–234 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2185-8

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  • Hedley fractionation
  • Organic and inorganic P
  • Soil pH
  • Soil organic matter