Lasting effects of snow accumulation on summer performance of large herbivores in alpine ecosystems may not last



  1. One of the clearest predictions from the IPCC is that we can expect much less snow cover due to global warming in the 21st century, especially in the lower alpine areas. In alpine ecosystems, snow accumulation in depressions gives rise to distinct snow-bed vegetation types, assumed to play a key role in ecosystem function. A delayed plant phenology yields high-quality forage in late summer for wild and domestic herbivores. Yet, the mechanistic pathways for how declining snow may affect future performance of large herbivores beyond the effect of phenology remain poorly documented.
  2. Here, we link unique individual-based data on diet choice, habitat selection and performance of domestic sheep over a 10-year period to manually GPS-recorded spatial positions of snow cover in early summer (0·57% to 43·3% in snow beds on 1st of July) in an alpine ecosystem.
  3. Snowy winters gave a higher proportion of easily digestible herbs in the diet and a more variable use of snow-bed and meadow vegetation types resulting in faster growing lambs. These patterns were consistent between two density treatment levels although slightly more marked for diet at low density, suggesting that effects of simple mitigation efforts such as managing population numbers will be meagre.
  4. Our study thus yields novel insight into the strong impact of melting snow on ecosystem function in alpine habitats, which are likely to affect productivity of both domestic and wild ungulate populations.