Biodiversity time series reveal global losses and accelerated redistributions of species, but no net loss in local species richness. To better understand how these patterns are linked, we quantify how individual species trajectories scale up to diversity changes using data from 68 vegetation resurvey studies of seminatural forests in Europe. Herb-layer species with small geographic ranges are being replaced by more widely distributed species, and our results suggest that this is due less to species abundances than to species nitrogen niches. Nitrogen deposition accelerates the extinctions of small-ranged, nitrogen-efficient plants and colonization by broadly distributed, nitrogen-demanding plants (including non-natives). Despite no net change in species richness at the spatial scale of a study site, the losses of small-ranged species reduce biome-scale (gamma) diversity. These results provide one mechanism to explain the directional replacement of small-ranged species within sites and thus explain patterns of biodiversity change across spatial scales.