We tested the hypothesis that low-ranking red deer Cervus elaphus stags adjust feeding tactics according to the spatio-temporal availability of the food. We observed free-ranging red deer at two supplementary feeding sites in the Scottish Highlands. It was predicted that at spatially clumped food, low-ranking stags would avoid high-ranking stags, 1. spatially when food is available only for a short period, but 2. temporally when the food is available continuously.

We observed several feeding tactics in low-ranking stags and the prevalence of a feeding tactic was related to the spatial distribution of the food. When food was highly clumped some low-ranking stags rushed in between feeding high-ranking stags, took a bite and retreated to process the bite (sneaking tactic). Bite rate/min did not differ between sneaking (0.29 ± 0.05) and non-sneaking low-ranking stags (0.26 ± 0.05). Compared with non-sneaking low-ranking herd members, sneaking stags took larger bites, as reflected in a significantly longer handling time (125 ± 12.4 s/bite) and thus achieved a higher intake, although still considerably less than high-ranking stags.

The temporal availability of the food did not influence feeding tactics in low-ranking stags. Low-ranking stags always avoided higher-ranking herd members spatially but did not shift their feeding bouts to times of the day when high-ranking stags were not feeding.