The impact of red deer on liverwort-rich oceanic heath vegetation
Background: There is concern about increasing numbers of large herbivores including red deer (Cervus elaphus), but little is known about their impact on bryophytes.
Aims: This study set out to determine the effect of different localised densities of red deer on the internationally important Northern Atlantic hepatic mat, characteristic of oceanic heath vegetation, at four locations in the Scottish Highlands where sheep have been absent for decades.
Methods: Thirty 7 m × 7 m plots were randomly located in each study area. The standing crop dung pellet group count method was used to estimate red deer density. Species richness, diversity and cover of hepatic mat liverworts were obtained from 1 m × 1 m quadrats placed at random within the sample plots. Calluna vulgaris cover, ericoid height, rock cover, gradient and altitude were also recorded.
Results: Model simplification in analysis of covariance revealed a consistent pattern of decreasing cover of hepatic mat and Calluna with increasing red deer density at all four study areas. Northern Atlantic hepatic mat cover, diversity and species richness were positively correlated with Calluna cover.
Conclusions: The data suggest that Calluna cover is reduced (through trampling and browsing) at high local densities of red deer which has had cascading effects on the Northern Atlantic hepatic mat. Alternative explanations are discussed.