How browsing by red deer impacts on litter decomposition in a native regenerating woodland in the Highlands of Scotland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Herbivores can indirectly affect ecosystem productivity and processes such as nutrient cycling and decomposition by altering the quantity and quality of resource inputs into the decomposer subsystem. Here, we tested how browsing by red deer impacts on the decomposition of, and nutrient loss from, birch leaf litter (Betula pubescens), and tested whether effects of browsing on these measures were direct, via alteration of the quality of leaf litter, or indirect through long term impacts of deer browsing on soil biological properties. This was tested in a microcosm experiment using soil and litter taken from inside and outside three individual fenced exclosures located at Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, Scotland. We found that litter of un-browsed trees decomposed faster than that from browsed trees, irrespective of whether soil was sourced from inside or outside exclosures. These findings suggest that effects of browsing on litter quality, rather than on soil biological properties, are the key determinant of enhanced decomposition in un-browsed areas of this ecosystem. Despite this, we found no consistent impact of browsing on litter C:N, a key indicator of litter quality; however, the rate of litter decomposition was linearly and negatively related to litter C:N when analysed across all the sites, indicating that this measure, in part, contributed to variation in rates of decomposition in this ecosystem. Our findings indicate that herbivores impact negatively on rates of decomposition in this ecosystem, ultimately retarding nutrient cycling rates, and that these effects are, in part, related to changes in litter quality.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-399
Number of pages6
JournalBiology and Fertility of Soils
Volume38
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2003