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MILES planted birch plots: MOORCO – Moorland colonisation

Image showing MILES planted birch plots
We use long-term experimental plots to assess the impact on above and below-ground biodiversity and ecosystem services of a change in landuse from moorland to woodland


These plots are part of the MOORCO project and were established in order to experimentally test the results from the MOORCO chronosequence plots. The effects of birch (Betula sp.) on moorland soils is being tested using a replicated paired plot experiment established at three sites in Scotland in the early 1980s. Data collected from these plots has enabled us to assess the ecological engineering impact of birch on above and below-ground species and processes.

Key results

  • Under the birch, plant species richness decreased and the ground vegetation composition changed, from being dominated by Calluna vulgaris to being dominated by either grasses and Vaccinium myrtillus or bare ground depending on the density of the trees.
  • The depth of the soil organic horizon, its moisture content and percentage carbon were all smaller under the birch than under the heather.
  • Concentrations of available phosphorus and mineralisable-N were significantly greater in the soil under birch than under the heather plots.
  • Decomposition was faster in the birch than in the heather plots.
  • The abundance and species richness of Collembola and oribatid, mesostigmatid and prostigmatid mites were all significantly greater under the birch than under the heather.
  • Under birch, total microbial biomass (total phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs)) declined, species richness increased and the ratio of fungal:bacterial PLFA declined.
  • The fungal PLFA marker increased with increasing organic matter and depth of the LFH and O soil horizons, characteristics associated with moorland soils.
  • Bacterial PLFAs increased with increasing birch canopy cover.
  • The fungal community (as measured using polymerase chain reaction–denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE)) of the birch plots was different from that in the heather plots and changes in the fungal community composition were related to the size of the birch trees in the plots.
  • Changes in the soil microbial community were also related to changes in mineralizable N. Mineralizable N was correlated with both decreasing total soil microbial biomass and decreasing fungal:bacterial ratio.
  • This work has provided experimental evidence that birch acts as a top-down engineer, driving cascading effects on both above- and below-ground communities, soil chemical and physical properties and ecosystem processes

 See Publications for further details of results.


Site Name Grid reference
Dalnalyne NJ189175
Craggan (a) NJ197326
Kerrow NH336299


Experimental design


  • Planted plots: Betula pubescens planted at 1m spacing in plots
  • Control plots: Open heather moorland
  • Betula pendula: at Kerrow an addition 6 plots were established with Betula pendula planted


Paired plot design 6 control plots and 6 Betula pubescens plots at each site.  In addition a further 6 plots at Kerrow with the second birch species

Data collected

Data type Date Details
Vegetation 1985, 2003 Species composition (% cover)
Soil chemistry 1978, 1986, 2003 Al, C, C:N, Ca, Ca, Fe, K, LOI, Mg, Mn, moisture, N, Na, N-mineralization, P, pH
Soil microbial 2003 PLFAs and DGGE
Decomposition rates 2003 Filter papers and wooden sticks
Soil physical properties 1978, 2003 LFH depth, O depth, bulk density
Tree density and size 2003 Number, height and DBH
Soil invertebrates 2004 Collembolla and mites (to species) Enchytraeidaes numbers


MOORCO is a collaborative project across several groups and themes within the James Hutton Institute and with many different staff involved. In the first instance please contact Dr Ruth Mitchell for further details.


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.