The coastal grasslands in north-eastern South Africa are a severely threatened vegetation type rich in plant species, particularly forbs. Many of the forbs have underground storage organs which allow them to resprout rapidly after fires. A significant portion of this land was placed under commercial pine afforestation in the 1950s. The pine plantations have since been removed starting 17 years ago and restored to grasslands within a conservation area. We assessed the effects of plantations on grassland plant diversity and functional trait composition by sampling 64 circular quadrats of 5 m radius distributed equally in restored versus natural grasslands. The difference in plant diversity was dramatic with the natural grassland supporting 221 species of which 163 were forbs compared with 144 and only 73 forb species in restored grasslands. Major differences in species composition were recorded, especially for forb species. Natural grasslands were dominated by resprouters (130 species) but these were rare in the restored grasslands (36 species). Differences in plant species response to fire were also evident for the two grassland states. In contrast to coastal forest restoration studies in the same area which have shown near linear increases in woody species with time, restored grasslands showed no increase in forb species richness with increasing time since clear-felling of pines. Our results indicate that current methods for restoring these grasslands are inadequate and that restoring grasslands may be a lot harder than previously thought. Considerable effort should be made in conserving what is left of natural grasslands.
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