, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 781–795 | Cite as

Context-Dependency of Agricultural Legacies in Temperate Forest Soils

  • Haben BlondeelEmail author
  • Michael P. Perring
  • Laurent Bergès
  • Jörg Brunet
  • Guillaume Decocq
  • Leen Depauw
  • Martin Diekmann
  • Dries Landuyt
  • Jaan Liira
  • Sybryn L. Maes
  • Margot Vanhellemont
  • Monika Wulf
  • Kris Verheyen


Anthropogenic activities have affected forests for centuries, leading to persistent legacies. Observations of agricultural legacies on forest soil properties have been site specific and contrasting. Sites and regions vary along gradients in intrinsic soil characteristics, phosphorus (P) management and nitrogen (N) deposition which could affect the magnitude of soil property responses to past cultivation. A single investigation along these gradients could reconcile contradictions and elucidate context-dependency in agricultural legacies. We analysed soil from 24 paired post-agricultural (established after approx. 1950) and ancient (in existence before 1850) forests in eight European regions. Post-agricultural forest soil had higher pH, higher P-concentration and lower carbon (C) to N ratio compared to ancient forest. Importantly, gradients of soil characteristics, regional P surplus and N deposition affected the magnitude of these legacies. First, we found that three soil groups, characterising inherent soil fertility, determined extractable base cations, pH and concentrations of total N, organic C and total P. Second, regions with greater current P surplus from agriculture correlated with the highest P legacy in post-agricultural forests. Finally, we found that N deposition lowered pH across forests and increased total N and organic C concentrations in post-agricultural forest. These results suggest that (1) legacies from cultivation consistently determine soil properties in post-agricultural forest and (2) these legacies depend on regional and environmental context, including soil characteristics, regional P surplus and N deposition. Identifying gradients that influence the magnitude of agricultural legacies is key to informing how, where and why forest ecosystems respond to contemporary environmental change.


ancient forest land-use history nitrogen deposition phosphorus post-agricultural forest soil carbon 



We thank the European Research Council for funding this research through the PASTFORWARD project [ERC Consolidator Grant 614839, attributed to KV]. We thank the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) for supporting DL and for funding the scientific research network FLEUR ( as this network proved to be a helpful platform for finding study regions. Many colleagues from the Forest & Nature Lab provided valuable input in completion of this work. Robbe De Beelde, Filip Ceunen and Kris Ceunen helped considerably in the soil collection campaign. Luc Willems and Greet de Bruyn performed soil chemical analyses. Stephanie Schelfhout and An De Schrijver provided references for soil chemical analyses and P-related literature. We thank Gerrit Genouw from the Research Institute Nature and Forest (INBO) for arranging soil texture analyses. Multiple persons helped in relocating forest patch locations or reconstructing their history and granting access. Our gratitude goes out to Pieter De Becker, Peter Van de Kerckhove, Kris Vandekerkhove, Marc Esprit, Hilaire Martin, Frédéric Archaux, Emilie Gallet-Moron, Henri de Witasse de Thézy, Thierry Kervin and Mme. Laudelot.

Supplementary material

10021_2018_302_MOESM1_ESM.doc (540 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 540 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Haben Blondeel
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael P. Perring
    • 1
    • 2
  • Laurent Bergès
    • 3
  • Jörg Brunet
    • 4
  • Guillaume Decocq
    • 5
  • Leen Depauw
    • 1
  • Martin Diekmann
    • 6
  • Dries Landuyt
    • 1
  • Jaan Liira
    • 7
  • Sybryn L. Maes
    • 1
  • Margot Vanhellemont
    • 1
  • Monika Wulf
    • 8
  • Kris Verheyen
    • 1
  1. 1.Forest & Nature Lab, Department of Environment, Faculty of Bioscience EngineeringGhent UniversityMelle-GontrodeBelgium
  2. 2.Ecosystem Restoration and Intervention Ecology Research Group, School of Biological SciencesThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  3. 3.Irstea, UR EMGR, UR LESSEMUniversité Grenoble AlpesSt-Martin-d’HèresFrance
  4. 4.Southern Swedish Forest Research CentreSwedish University of Agricultural SciencesAlnarpSweden
  5. 5.Ecologie et Dynamique des Systèmes Anthropisés (EDYSAN, UMR 7058 CNRS)Jules Verne University of PicardieAmiens Cedex 1France
  6. 6.Vegetation Ecology and Conservation Biology, Institute of Ecology, FB 2University of BremenBremenGermany
  7. 7.Institute of Ecology and Earth ScienceUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia
  8. 8.ZALF, Research Area 2MünchebergGermany

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