The temporal impact of clearing trees on litter production, litter decomposition and on C, N and P release through decomposition of litter was examined in the pasture systems of a semi-arid zone of central Queensland. Paired sites for cleared pastures (developed from clearing woodlands) and uncleared (intact woodland) pastures were selected to represent three dominant tree communities of the region i.e. Eucalyptus populnea, E. melanophloia and Acacia harpophylla, with three different time-since-clearing (5, 11–13 and 33 y) treatments. Yearly litter production was greater at uncleared sites (1732–1948 kg ha−1 y−1 for eucalypt and 2596 kg ha−1 y−1 for acacia communities) compared with cleared sites (1038–1282 kg ha−1 y−1 for eucalypt and 1100 kg ha−1 y−1 for acacia communities averaged over three time-since-clearing treatments). Rates of litter decomposition and of release of C, N and P from decomposing litter were higher at cleared than uncleared sites for all three tree communities. The cleared and uncleared sites did not differ significantly in total amount of C and N released per year since the concentrations of C and N were greater in litter from uncleared sites but the rate of release was less than that at cleared sites. Slow but continuous release of nutrients in eucalypt and acacia woodlands may be an adaptation of these communities to maintain the nutrient cycle and to avoid leaching of nutrients in the nutrient-poor soils of the region.