Ecosystem service provision from coupled plant and microbial functional diversity in managed grasslands (VITAL)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Life Sciences


Given increasing political and public concern for the environment, and resulting changes in legislation, European agriculture is challenged to provide ecosystem services such as carbon storage and protection of water quality, along with biodiversity conservation and maintenance of economically viable production. In Europe, extensively managed or restored grasslands are key elements of managed and natural landscapes, and meet such multifunctional objectives. In spite of this, basic understanding of the ecological constraints and opportunities for multifunctionality in semi-natural grasslands is missing. Therefore, its translation into accessible knowledge for non-experts, which is required in order to guide policy and management of these agroecosystems, is limited. VITAL will test the general hypothesis that the delivery of multiple ecosystem services in semi-natural grasslands, and its vulnerability to changing management, can be explained by the coupling among plant and soil microbial functional diversity, and its impacts on carbon and nitrogen turnover. VITAL aims to address this hypothesis and its relevance to local and regional development by producing a conceptual model of relationships among plant and microbial functional diversity, and multiple ecosystem service delivery. VITAL will focus on mountain grasslands where traditional livelihoods relying on multifunctionality are threatened by ongoing societal changes. VITAL aims at a generic understanding based on research at three sites in the French Alps (Lautaret), Austria (Stubai Valley), and the UK (Yorkshire Dales), which represent management trends spanning the full gradient of fertility-biodiversity interactions, and includes 6 workpackages designed to follow steps prescribed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for regional assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services. WP1 will use stakeholder semi-directed interviews and meetings to identify key ecosystem services associated with the maintenance of fertility in mountain grasslands, how these are perceived to be affected by management, as well as indicators they use for these services. WP2-4 will analyse current trends and condition of biodiversity and ecosystem services and their underlying mechanisms using a step-wise approach from the individual plant to the field. WP2 will use advanced ecophysiological, biochemical and molecular methods to screen plant and microbial functional responses to fertility and link them with easily measurable plant traits that respond to management and affect carbon and nitrogen turnover. WP3 will then build multispecies assemblages by manipulating the dominance of plant species with different traits on soils from differently managed grasslands. WP4 will test the robustness of this model across management intensity gradients at the three field sites. WP5 will generate projections of future ecosystem service delivery according to alternative management scenarios constructed by downscaling with local stakeholders a range of scenarios of global change, including extreme changes. Their impacts on ecosystem services will be modelled using both a statistical approach based on results from WP4, and dynamic ecosystem models. WP6 will use a series of three workshops per site to identify the needs of local stakeholders, land managers and policy makers, to meet these needs by transferring knowledge and tools gained in WP1-5 to them, and thereby to raise awareness of biodiversity and ecological processes underlying ecosystem services delivery, and of impacts of management change. Their feedbacks and perception of actions that need to be taken in the future for sustainable rural development will be delivered to policy makers. Outreach to managers and the public will be strengthened through the development of a training toolkit.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/G002258/1 01/05/2009 31/01/2013 £126,132
NE/G002258/2 Transfer NE/G002258/1 01/02/2013 30/09/2013 £14,726
Description VITAL was a Pan-European project funded by ERA-Net BiodivERsA, which aimed to study of the role of plant and soil microbial diversity in the provision of ecosystem services in semi-natural grasslands, and the impacts of agricultural practices on these relationships. VITAL included seven partner institutions and three field sites.
Lancaster University were one of the seven partner institutions and as such coordinated and carried out experimental measurements at one of the three field sites (Yorkshire Dales and Hazelrigg field station). The main research activities and findings carried out by the Lancaster team are listed below. The influence of above-ground and below-ground plant functional traits on the activity and abundance of soil microbial community were measured in a field based experiment set up at the three VITAL field sites, at the Lautaret Pass (French Alps), the Stubai Valley (Austrian Alps), and the Yorkshire Dales (United Kingdom). This study showed that plant traits, especially root traits, explain variation in ecosystem processes (Grigulis et al. 2013) and the functional capabilities of soil microbial communities (Legay et al. 2014; Legay et al. 2016). The impacts of plant functional traits and nitrogen enrichment on soil microbial communities and nitrogen cycling were studied in modelled grassland communities at the three VITAL sites. The key finding from this study was that plant trait composition influenced the indirect effects of N addition on the abundance of the soil microbial community, suggesting that plant traits are important predictors of ecosystem processes in grassland.

The influence of plant trait composition on CO2 fluxes and nutrient losses from soil were studied in model grassland communities at the VITAL UK site; showing that plant traits influence carbon cycling in grassland communities, with faster rates of carbon cycling in communities dominated by exploitative traits than those dominated by conservative traits.

A plant-soil feedback experiment showed that plant functional traits influence plant-soil feedbacks and interspecific competition, thus with potential impacts on future plant community composition. This work has been published in a New Phytologist special edition (Baxendale et al. 2014)

Overall, our studies demonstrate that impacts of global change, in this case land management, on plant functional diversity, namely the type, range and relative abundance of plant functional traits, have cascading effects on the way ecosystems function.
Exploitation Route As part of the project, we proposed a plant trait framework for understanding how ecosystems respond to global change (Lavorel et al. 2013). This framework is now being used in follow on research, including BBSRC (BB1009000/2) and NERC (NE/J014729/1) funded projects
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description The results are yet to be used, but they provide a framework for future studies which use plant traits to predict ecosystem responses to global change. Various engagement activities have been done to present the framework to stakeholder and get their opinions.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Stakeholder interviews and focus group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We carried out interviews with local and regional stakeholders and ran a focus group with local farmers with the aim of discussing the aims of the VITAL project, and discussing and exploring their views on ecosystem services and soil fertility in hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales. The interviews were carried out in various locations across the North West of England, usually in the work place of the stakeholders involved and the focus group took place in The Hill Inn at Chapel-le-Dale in Yorkshire. In total 7 interviews were carried out with a variety of different stakeholders at different levels during February and March 2010. The focus group consisted of 4 farmers from the local area and took place in April 2010. Parallel interviews and focus groups were carried out at the two other VITAL sites and the findings of these have been published in a journal (Lamarque, P., U. Tappeiner, C. Turner, M. Steinbacher, R. D. Bardgett, U. Szukics, M. Schermer, S. Lavorel. 2011. Stakeholder perceptions of grassland ecosystem services in relation to knowledge on soil fertility and biodiversity. Regional Environmental Change 11:791-804.).

We developed a relationship with local farmers at the site, who we now collaborate with in research projects. We also published a paper with potential to impact the scientific and policy community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010