Soil disturbance is recognized as an important driver of biodiversity in dry grasslands, and can therefore be implemented as a restoration measure. However, because community re-assembly following disturbance includes stochastic processes, a focus only on species richness or establishment success of particular species will not inform on how plant communities respond ecologically to disturbance. We therefore evaluated vegetation development following disturbance by quantifying species richness, species composition and functional trait composition. Degraded calcareous sandy grassland was subjected to experimental disturbance treatments (ploughing or rotavation), and the vegetation was surveyed during four subsequent years of succession. Treated plots were compared with control plots representing untreated grassland, as well as nearby plots characterized by plant communities representing the restoration target. Species richness and functional diversity both increased in response to soil disturbance, and rotavation, but not ploughing, had a persistent positive effect on the occurrence of specialist species of calcareous sandy grassland. However, no type of soil disturbance caused the plant species composition to develop towards the target vegetation. The disturbance had an immediate and large impact on the vegetation, but the vegetation developed rapidly back towards the control sites. Plant functional composition analysis indicated that the treatments created habitats different both from control sites and target sites. Community-weighted mean Ellenberg indicator values suggested that the observed plant community response was at least partially due to an increase in nitrogen and water availability following disturbance. This study shows that a mild type of disturbance, such as rotavation, may be most successful in promoting specialist species in calcareous sandy grassland, but that further treatments are needed to reduce nutrient availability. We conclude that a functional trait based analysis provides additional information of the vegetation response and the abiotic conditions created, complementing the information from the species composition.