Spatial heterogeneity of soil properties plays a major role in regulating ecosystem structure and functioning. In general, soil resources accumulate beneath woody plant-covered patches more than in the open interspace, making them function as fertility islands. Whilst wildfire is a common disturbance, little information is available on the role of particular plant species in maintaining soil fertility underneath in areas that are subjected to recurrent fires. This is an important issue given that land abandonment, together with a warmer and drier climate, is increasing fire danger in regions such as the Mediterranean. We determined whether increasing fire frequency, producing changes from a Quercus ilex L., woodland to a shrubland, modifies the effect of woody plant canopy on soil fertility. Additionally, the effect of fire history on species-specific leaf and litter nutrient concentration was assessed. Areas affected by none, one, two or three fires were selected. Within each area, soil fertility was measured underneath Cistus ladanifer L., Retama sphaerocarpa L., Phillyrea angustifolia L. and Quercus ilex canopies and in open interspace. Unburned soils located underneath P. angustifolia and Q. ilex canopies were significantly more fertile than in open interspaces. The microsite effect on soil fertility was fire frequency dependent. As fire frequency increased, the plant canopy microsite effect decreased for soil organic matter (SOM), cation exchange capacity (CEC), total C, P, Ca, K and Mg, labile phosphate, arylsulfatase and acid phosphatase activities. Total N, ammonium, nitrate and β-glucosidase activity decreased with increasing fire frequency, but their spatial variability was maintained along all fire frequency scenarios. Fire frequency decreased foliar N concentration but increased P concentration in some species, leading to a decrease in their N:P ratio. Our findings suggest that soil fertility heterogeneity will be reduced with increasing fire frequency. This could compromise the recovery of soil and ecosystem functioning.
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