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Exclusion of deer affects responses of birds to woodland regeneration in winter and summer

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Abstract

Using an exclosure experiment in managed woodland in eastern England, we examined species and guild responses to vegetation growth and its modification by deer herbivory, contrasting winter and the breeding season over 4 years. Species and guild responses, in terms of seasonal presence recorded by multiple point counts, were examined using generalized linear mixed models. Several guilds or migrant species responded positively to deer exclusion and none responded negatively. The shrub-layer foraging guild was recorded less frequently in older and browsed vegetation, in both winter and spring. Exclusion of deer also increased the occurrence of ground-foraging species in both seasons, although these species showed no strong response to vegetation age. The canopy-foraging guild was unaffected by deer exclusion or vegetation age in either season. There was seasonal variation in the responses of some individual resident species, including a significantly lower occurrence of Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes and European Robin Erithacus rubecula in browsed vegetation in winter, but no effect of browsing on those species in spring. Ordinations of bird assemblage compositions also revealed seasonal differences in response to gradients of vegetation structure generated by canopy-closure and exclusion of deer. Positive impacts of deer exclusion in winter are probably linked to reduced thermal cover and predator protection afforded by browsed vegetation, whereas species that responded positively in spring were also dependent on a dense understorey for nesting. The effects on birds of vegetation development and its modification by herbivores extend beyond breeding assemblages, with different mechanisms implicated and different species affected in winter.

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