The aim of this study was to test the relative importance of changes in density and species richness of soil mesofauna as determinants of nutrient mineralisation and plant growth. The experiment was carried out using microcosms containing a mixture of plant litter and soil in which seedlings of Lolium perenne were planted, and a range of combinations of levels of density and species richness of microarthropods added. Over the duration of the experiment, nutrient release, measured as concentrations of NO3--N and total N in leachates, increased significantly with increasing microarthropod density, but decreased with increasing species richness. Leachate concentrations of NH4+-N, dissolved organic N and C (DON and DOC) were not affected by the faunal treatments. Soil respiration, a measure of microbial activity, decreased with increasing density of microarthropods, whereas microbial biomass was not affected by microarthropods. Increasing density of soil animals had a negative effect on the shoot biomass of L. perenne while the effect of species richness was positive. Neither the species richness nor density of soil microarthropods was found to significantly influence root biomass. We conclude that variations in animal density had a greater influence on soil nutrient mineralisation processes than did species richness. Possible reasons for these opposing effects of animal density and diversity on soil N mobilization are discussed. © Springer-Verlag 2004.