Effects of understory characteristics on browsing patterns of roe deer in central European mountain forests

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Ecol Evol. 2023 Aug 14;13(8):e10431. doi: 10.1002/ece3.10431. eCollection 2023 Aug.


Selective browsing by deer on young trees may impede the management goal of increasing forest resilience against climate change and other disturbances. Deer population density is often considered the main driver of browsing impacts on young trees, however, a range of other variables such as food availability also affect this relationship. In this study, we use browsing survey data from 135 research plots to explore patterns of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) browsing pressure on woody plants in mountainous forests in central Europe. We fitted species-specific generalised linear mixed models for eight woody taxa, assessing the potential effects of understory characteristics, roe deer abundance and lying deadwood on browsing intensity. Our study reveals conspecific and associational effects for woody taxa that are intermediately browsed by roe deer. Selective browsing pressure was mediated by preferences of plants, in that, browsing of strongly preferred woody taxa as for example mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) and of least preferred woody taxa, for example Norway spruce (Picea abies) was not affected by the surrounding understory vegetation, while browsing pressure on intermediately browsed species like for example silver fir (Abies alba) was affected by understory characteristics. Contrary to our expectations, roe deer abundance was only positively associated with browsing pressure on silver fir and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), while all other plants were unaffected by deer abundance. Finally, we did not find an influence of lying deadwood volume on the browsing pressure on any woody-plant species. Overall, our results indicate that patterns in browsing preference and intensity are species-specific processes and are partly affected by the surrounding understory vegetation. Current management strategies that aim to reduce browsing pressure through culling may be inefficient as they do not address other drivers of browsing pressure. However, managers also need to consider the characteristics of the local understory vegetation in addition to deer abundance and design species-specific plans to reduce browsing on woody plant taxa.

PMID:37589040 | PMC:PMC10425343 | DOI:10.1002/ece3.10431

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