Over the last decades sub-Saharan Africa has experienced severe land degradation and food security challenges linked to loss of soil fertility and soil organic matter (SOM), recurrent drought and increasing population. Although primary production in drylands is strictly limited by water availability, nutrient deficiencies, particularly of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), are also considered limiting factors for plant growth. It is known that SOM (often measured as soil organic carbon (SOC)) is a key indicator of soil fertility, therefore, management practices that increase SOM contents, such as increasing tree cover, can be expected to improve soil fertility. The objectives of this study were to investigate the effect of Acacia senegal (Senegalia senegal) trees on soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (K) in relation to SOC, the potential of A. senegal for N2 fixation, and to identify possible N and P ecosystem limitations.
Soil nutrient (total N, P, K and available P and exchangeable K) concentrations and stocks were determined for the 0–10, 10–20,20–30 and 30–50 cm layers of A. senegal plantations of varying age (ranging from 7 to 24-years-old) and adjacent grasslands (reference) at two sites in semi-arid areas of Sudan. At both sites, three plots were established in each grassland and plantation. The potential of A. senegal for N2 fixation in relation to plantations age was assessed using δ15N isotopic abundances and nutrient limitations assessed using C:N:P stoichiometry.
Soil concentrations of all studied nutrients were relatively low but were significantly and directly correlated to SOC concentrations. SOC and nutrient concentrations were the highest in the topsoil (0–10 cm) and increased with plantations age. Acacia foliage δ15N values were >6‰ and varied little with plantations age. Soil C:N and C:P ratios did not differ between grassland and plantations and only 0–10 cm layer N:P ratios showed significant differences between grassland and plantations.
The results indicated that soil fertility in the Sahel region is strongly related to SOM contents and therefore highlighting the importance of trees in the landscape. The higher mineral nutrient concentrations in the topsoil of the plantations may be an indication of ‘nutrient uplift’ by the deeper roots. The high foliar δ15N values indicated that N2 fixation was not an important contributor to soil N contents in the plantations. The accretion of soil N cannot be explained by deposition but may be related to inputs of excreted N brought into the area annually by grazing and browsing animals. The soil C:N:P stoichiometry indicated that the plantations may be limited by P and the grasslands limited by N.||es_CL