Influence of canopy openness, ungulate exclosure, and low‐intensity fire for improved oak regeneration in temperate Europe
Failed oak regeneration is widely reported in temperate forests and has been linked in part to changed disturbance regimes and land-use. We investigated if the North American fire–oak hypothesis could be applicable to temperate European oaks (Quercus robur, Quercus petraea) using a replicated field experiment with contrasting canopy openness, protection against ungulate browsing (fencing/no fencing), and lowintensity surface fire (burn/no burn). Survival, relative height growth (RGRH), browsing damage on naturally regenerated oaks (≤300 cm tall), and changes in competing woody vegetation were monitored over three years. Greater light availability in canopy gaps increased oak RGRH (p = .034) and tended to increase survival (p = .092). There was also a trend that protection from browsing positively affected RGRH (p = .058) and survival (p = .059). Burning reduced survival (p < .001), nonetheless, survival rates were relatively high across treatment combinations at the end of the experiment (54%– 92%). Most oaks receiving fire were top-killed and survived by producing new sprouts; therefore, RGRH in burned plots became strongly negative the first year. Thereafter, RGRH was greater in burned plots (p = .002). Burning altered the patterns of ungulate browsing frequency on oaks. Overall, browsing frequency was greater during winter; however, in recently burned plots summer browsing was prominent. Burning did not change relative density of oaks, but it had a clear effect on competing woody vegetation as it reduced the number of individuals (p < .001) and their heights (p < .001). Our results suggest that young, temperate European oaks may respond similarly to fire as their North American congeners. However, disturbance from a single low-intensity fire may not be sufficient to ensure a persistent competitive advantage—multiple fires and canopy thinning to increase light availability may be needed. Further research investigating long-term fire effects on oaks of various ages, species-specific response of competitors and implications for biodiversity conservation is needed.