Influence of patch characteristics on browsing of tree seedlings by mammalian herbivores.
In south-eastern Australia, browsing of commercial tree seedlings by mammalian herbivores in plantation forestry incurs a large economic cost to the industry, through its effect on tree survival, growth and form. In the absence of lethal methods to control herbivore populations, appropriate manipulation of vegetation through silvicultural management may reduce browsing but it relies on understanding the feeding responses of the herbivores to such changes. We evaluated the extent to which vegetation patch characteristics affected browsing of pine Pinus radiata seedlings by generalist mammalian herbivores, including red-bellied pademelons Thylogale billardierii, Bennett's wallaby Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus and the common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula. In field trials, browsing of pine seedlings was greatest when they were located in patches of high quality, i.e. palatable short vegetation (grass), intermediate in high-quality tall vegetation (Lomandra longifolia) and least in low-quality tall vegetation (bracken and shrub). Patch structure also affected browsing: in low-quality patches pine seedlings were browsed more in short vegetation patches (12-24 cm shorter than the seedling) than in tall vegetation patches (at least as tall as the seedling). This difference was at least partly because herbivores took, on average, 2 weeks longer to locate seedlings in tall than in short vegetation. In trials with captive red-bellied pademelons and brushtail possums, pine seedlings were browsed similarly in small short grass and soil patches. However, when these patches were large and spatially separated, they were browsed more in short grass than soil patches. Selection at the patch or individual plant level therefore depended on spatial scale and proximity of the patches. Synthesis and applications. The influence of patch characteristics on browsing has the potential to be exploited for the management of browsing damage to commercially important tree seedlings in forestry plantations. Retention of relatively tall vegetation, particularly if it is unpalatable, in areas at risk of heavy browsing, for example by delaying the use of herbicide, may be a useful management strategy for reducing browsing. This needs to be weighed against the potential detrimental competitive effects of neighbouring vegetation on the seedlings.