The impact of forest spread on a marginal population of a protected peony (Paeonia officinalis L.):: The importance of conserving the habitat mosaic

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In the Mediterranean region of Europe, land-use changes have allowed for rapid colonisation of open habitats by woody species. As a result, it is critical to gather information on how protected species in open habitats respond to forest spread in such areas. Our objective is to quantify whether spatial heterogeneity of the vegetation associated with recent forest closure influences demographic structure and maternal fertility in a population of the protected Paeonia officinalis L. In closed woodland, adult plants of P. officinalis are almost exclusively vegetative, in open habitats seedlings are rare and on the woodland edge there is a relative over-representation of flowering plants and seedlings. Forest closure dramatically reduces flowering frequency, but has no significant effect on maternal fertility of flowering plants. The spatial aggregation of seedlings close to the maternal plants suggests that dispersal is spatially restricted. Together, these results suggest that the viability of the population requires a transitional habitat between open garrigues or grassland with spaced trees and woodland. A management programme incorporating tree and shrub thinning and cutting of parcels in rotation to maximise the length of the forest edge could maintain a habitat mosaic that favours the persistence of this species in the study site.

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