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Individual study: Grazing and scrub clearance promote open dune habitat regeneration in pine plantation canopy gaps in Merseyside, UK

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Coastal management practices have shifted in recent decades to recognise afforestation of sand dunes as a principle factor in mobile dune system degradation and ecological decline. However, removal of conifer plantations to re-establish dune dynamics may be restricted by the presence of protected species and public antagonism to clear-felling. Alternatives include creation and management of canopy gaps such as glades and firebreaks, but little is known about the ecological value of these features. We investigated the effects of scrub clearance and livestock grazing on habitats and plant communities in pine plantation firebreaks at Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, Merseyside. The results were compared with nearby open dunes, both unplanted and formerly afforested. Although the open dunes had significantly higher species richness, larger numbers of positive indicator species and significantly lower numbers of negative indicator species, the firebreaks showed signs of dune habitat and plant community recovery 10-14 years after creation. Greater similarity in plant community composition between firebreaks and open dunes occurred in quadrats subject to livestock grazing and/or regular scrub clearance. We conclude that managed canopy gaps within existing pine plantations can increase valuable dune habitat and provide an alternative where large-scale clear-felling is not feasible.