Foraging behaviour of sheep and red deer within natural heather/grass mosaics.

Published online
28 May 1999
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Hester, A. J. & Gordon, I. J. & Baillie, G. J. & Tappin, E.

Publication language
UK & Scotland


Heather [Calluna vulgaris] moorland is an internationally important resource; it is valued as food and habitat for a range of herbivores as well as for landscape, conservation and recreation. In many parts of its range, grazing by large herbivores has impacted greatly on its current status and distribution. The interactions between two widespread herbivores, sheep and red deer [Cervus elaphus], and the vegetation were examined within a naturally fragmented heather/grass mosaic in NE Scotland from 1991-96. Both species foraged widely in this highly fragmented mosaic (red deer more widely than sheep) and consumed similar proportions of grass [Agrostis spp., Deschampsia flexuosa and Festuca spp.] and heather. Neither grazing species showed any major dietary shift as grass availability decreased during experimental periods. Grass patch size affected foraging behaviour differentially. Sheep spent more time grazing smaller grass patches (1-6 m2), whereas red deer showed no consistent grass patch size preferences (range: 1 m2 to over 200 m2). When lying down, red deer lay within heather almost exclusively, whereas sheep spent equal amounts of time within heather and small grass patches. Faecal distribution also differed in a similar way, with concomitant implications for the spatial distribution of both physical and chemical impacts on the vegetation. Contrary to previous hypotheses, the overall patterns of foraging behaviour by sheep and deer were little affected by the presence or absence of the other species. This suggests that range overlap between these species may have much less of an impact on their vegetation use than previously assumed. Heather moorland is frequently found on sloping ground, which was shown to have a major effect on foraging, with a strong preference by both species for grazing facing either uphill or across the slope. This, and other slope-related impacts, resulted in spatially different patterns of heather use around the edges of grass patches. The primary conclusions are that, although the overall use of grass and heather by sheep and red deer was similar within this fragmented mosaic, vegetation pattern clearly affected their foraging behaviour differentially. Sheep appeared to be much more affected by the scale of heather fragmentation than were deer and their habitat use was more closely focused on paths and grass patches, which contrasts with the more even use of the mosaic by deer. The implications of these behavioural differences for the management of upland grazings under one or both of these herbivore species are discussed.

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