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Camilla Fløjgaard

Body condition, diet and ecosystem function of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in a fenced nature reserve

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Body condition, as a sign of animal welfare, is of management concern in rewilding projects where fenced animals are subject to winter starvation, which may conflict with animal welfare legislation. Investigating the relationship between body condition, age, sex, diet quality and diet composition is therefore relevant to increase understanding of herbivores' ecosystem function and to inform management. In this study, we focused on red deer, Cervus elaphus, in a fenced nature reserve in Denmark, where the deer are managed as ecosystem engineers to contribute to biodiversity conservation. We measured body mass and body size of 91 culled red deer, and determined diet composition using DNA metabarcoding and diet quality using fecal nitrogen on 246 fecal samples. We found that body condition was predicted by age and diet composition, but not diet quality. We also found that individuals of different body condition had different diets, i.e., the fecal samples of red deer in poorer body condition contained significantly more Ericaceae sequences than red deer in good body condition. This may imply that certain functions of red deer in ecosystems, such as regeneration of heather by grazing, may depend on variation in body condition within the population. Our findings call for the need to consider the consequences of management practices, including culling or supplemental feeding, on the outcomes of habitat restoration, and more broadly underline the importance of preserving the overall breath of herbivore ecosystem functions for effective biodiversity conservation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGlobal Ecology and Conservation
Pages (from-to)312-323
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017

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