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Big game or big loss? High deer densities are threatening woody plant diversity and vegetation dynamics

Perea, Ramón, Girardello, Marco, San Miguel, Alfonso
Biodiversity and conservation 2014 v.23 no.5 pp. 1303-1318
Cistaceae, Lamiaceae, browsing, deer, ecological succession, ecosystems, fruits, grasses, habitats, homogenization, land use change, plant communities, progeny, shrublands, species diversity, woody plants
Land-use change and current game management have favored an increasing population of wild ungulates (especially deer) in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Here, we assess the impact of high deer densities (>30 ind km⁻²) on the highly diverse woody vegetation of Mediterranean ecosystems, where big game have been favored for the last decades. We examine whether prolonged deer browsing (over 30 years) affected plant composition, diversity and dynamics of the original (non-browsed) vegetation. Deer browsing led to an average decrease of 30.4 % in woody plant diversity (species richness), due to a lack of regeneration for the most preferred plant species. Species belonging to early stages of succession (mostly Labiatae and Cistaceae) were non-preferred by deer. Conversely, the most preferred species belonged mainly to late stages of plant succession. Deer impact on Mediterranean shrublands is causing biotic homogenization of plant communities and is threatening vegetation dynamics by forcing it to return to earlier succession stages. Strict deer population control favouring larger trophies but lower offspring numbers together with an adequate habitat management (increasing grass and acorn availability) would be the most efficient measures to reverse this diversity loss. Restoration work seems only appropriate for the most vulnerable species. We highlight the need of sampling deer-free areas with low or null historical browsing to assess the real impact of deer on woody plant diversity and vegetation dynamics.