Summary AimNew Zealand's cool temperate forests are usually dominated by one or more of the five native taxa of Nothofagus (Nothofagaceae; southern beech), but in certain regions there are sharp boundaries against podocarp–broadleaved forest where Nothofagus is rare or completely absent, either for historical (Pleistocene Glaciation) or climatic/biological (mild superhumid climate and competition) reasons. The dynamics of a Nothofagus boundary was investigated by monitoring disturbance-initiated establishment of isolated stands of N. fusca at the extreme limits of its regional distribution. LocationThe research was carried out in a regional forest ecotone between Nothofagus forest and podocarp–broadleaved forest in the upper Taramakau Valley, South Island, New Zealand. The survey region straddles a major, active fault system and associated tectonic movements and earthquakes with more distant epicentres have contributed to intermittent canopy disturbance of the local forests. MethodsIsolated stands of Nothofagus fusca beyond the limits of continuous Nothofagus forest were investigated during two field surveys, separated by 7–10 years. Changes in population size, stem diameter of individual trees, stand basal area and mean annual diameter increment were calculated for each of fifty-four isolated stands. Types of past and recent disturbance and the probable cause of mortality of trees were noted. ResultsThe total population of fifty-four sample stands, ranging in size from one to > 400 stems, increased by 37.4%, and compound basal area increased by 4.7% between the two surveys. Mean stem diameter growth of isolated stands was lower than expected by empirical data for N. fusca, suggesting reduced wood increment at the limits of its distribution. Tree mortality was 0.8% per year. Fifty-one per cent of the dead stems had died as a consequence of various types of natural disturbance, uproots being more common than snaps and crown breakage. Main conclusionsThe isolated N. fusca stands preferentially occupy sites likely to experience intermittent disturbance, mostly including disturbance of the soil cover, which facilitates their initial establishment and persistence. Because of causal relationships between mass movement on steep slopes and erosion/deposition of talus fans and river terraces, disturbance-initiated changes in forest composition are observed across a range of different landforms.