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Vegetation trampling resulting from recreation can adversely impact natural habitats, leading to the loss of vegetation and the degradation of plant communities. A considerable primary literature exists on this topic, therefore it is important to assess whether this accumulated evidence can be used to reach general conclusions concerning vegetation vulnerability to inform conservation management decisions. Experimental trampling studies on a global scale were retrieved using a systematic review methodology and synthesised using random effects meta-analysis. The relationships between vegetation recovery and each of initial vegetation resistance, trampling intensity, time for recovery, Raunkiaer life-form (perennating bud position), and habitat were tested using random effects multiple meta-regressions and subgroup analyses. The systematic search yielded 304 studies; of these, nine reported relevant randomized controlled experiments, providing 188 vegetation recovery effect sizes for analysis. The synthesis indicated there was significant heterogeneity in the impact of trampling on vegetation recovery. This was related to resistance and recovery time, and the interactions of these variables with Raunkiaer life-form, but was not strongly dependent on the intensity of the trampling experienced. The available evidence suggests that vegetation dominated by hemicryptophytes and geophytes recovers from trampling to a greater extent than vegetation dominated by other life-forms. Variation in effect within the chamaephyte, hemicryptophyte and geophyte life-form sub-groups was also explained by the initial resistance of vegetation to trampling, but not by trampling intensity. Intrinsic properties of plant communities appear to be the most important factors determining the response of vegetation to trampling disturbance. Specifically, the dominant Raunkiaer life-form of a plant community accounts for more variation in the resilience of communities to trampling than the intensity of the trampling experienced, suggesting that simple assessments based on this trait could guide decisions concerning sustainable access to natural areas. Methodological and reporting limitations must be overcome before more disparate types of evidence can be synthesised; this would enable more reliable extrapolation to non-study situations, and a more comprehensive understanding of how assessments of intrinsic plant traits can be used to underpin conservation management decisions concerning access.
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