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Keywords:

  • browsing;
  • competition importance;
  • competition intensity;
  • deer;
  • facilitation;
  • heather Calluna vulgaris;
  • herbivory;
  • positive plant interactions;
  • saplings;
  • Scots pine Pinus sylvestris

Summary

  • 1
    Facilitation between neighbouring plants can promote species survival and regulate community composition. However, the role of facilitation varies along environmental severity gradients. It is important to understand the shape of this relationship to improve our ability to predict the impact of a changing environment on biodiversity.
  • 2
    We used Scots pine saplings growing within heather to examine the shape of the relationship between facilitative interactions (protection from browsing) and the severity of the environment (deer browsing intensity). We also investigated whether protection from browsing translated into a biomass response of saplings.
  • 3
    In the first winter following planting heather had a facilitative effect on saplings by reducing the probability of browsing. This effect was strongest at intermediate deer browsing intensities, thus producing a hump-backed relationship between facilitative effects and the severity of the environment.
  • 4
    Protection from browsing did not lead to longer-term biomass gains for the saplings. The competitive effects of heather on sapling growth therefore outweighed the beneficial effects of protection from browsing.
  • 5
    These results provide much-needed information on the shape of the severity–interactions relationship with respect to a key natural disturbance phenomenon (herbivory), and demonstrate that an observable interaction relationship does not necessarily translate into a biomass response.
  • 6
    This illustrates the complex and potentially transient nature of plant–plant interactions, and the potential difficulty that would be associated with using shelter effects of heather as a management tool to promote Scots pine regeneration.