In the highlands of northern Ethiopia, remnants of the original Afromontane forest vegetation are largely restricted to church yards and other sacred groves in a matrix of cropland and semiarid degraded savanna. To assess the potential for natural forest regeneration, species composition and diversity of all forest fragments (10) in a study area of 13,000 ha were analyzed in relation to environmental and soil variables. Using a random design and a density of approximately one plot per two ha in all fragments, thirty-one 20 m × 20 m plots were sampled. Indicator species analysis and MRPP tests yielded five communities representing two forest types and one degraded savanna habitat.
The forest fragments had a species-poor tree and shrub community in which plots were rather homogeneous and most species abundant. NMDS and analysis of variance indicated that a topographical gradient correlated to soil phosphorus, soil depth, stoniness and the proximity to the river system explained the major differences in species composition and separated moist and dry Afromontane forest communities. The grazing intensity further partitioned the habitats. Present communities and their environmental correlates indicate that the secondary climax forest in the area probably consisted of dry Afromontane forest interlaced by broad strips of moist Afromontane forest along rivers and streams and not a continuous, mono-dominant Juniperus forest as is often presumed.
Negative effects of the degraded matrix on forest fragments increased with decreasing patch area and increasing shape irregularity. Nevertheless, all remaining fragments are important for their role in the landscape ecology of the region as refuges and species pools and should be protected and managed accordingly.
If seed dispersal from forest fragments into exclosures and subsequent tree recruitment are both successful, the vegetation type most likely to establish is Afromontane savanna woodland, and if managed properly, eventually dry Afromontane forest may arise. Increasing the size of small patches and placing forest plantations and exclosures in the vicinity of small forest fragments is expected to yield the most immediate results. This approach may increase the likelihood of patch colonisation by frugivorous forest birds and thus foster the regeneration of native woody species.