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Predation has a greater impact in less productive environments: variation in roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, population density across Europe


Claudia Melis, Centre for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology, Realfagbygget, NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway.


Aim  We aimed to describe the large-scale patterns in population density of roe deer Caprelous capreolus in Europe and to determine the factors shaping variation in their abundance.

Location  Europe.

Methods  We collated data on roe deer population density from 72 localities spanning 25° latitude and 48° longitude and analysed them in relation to a range of environmental factors: vegetation productivity (approximated by the fraction of photosynthetically active radiation) and forest cover as proxies for food supply, winter severity, summer drought and presence or absence of large predators (wolf, Canis lupus, and Eurasian lynx, Lynx lynx), hunter harvest and a competitor (red deer, Cervus elaphus).

Results  Roe deer abundance increased with the overall productivity of vegetation cover and with lower forest cover (sparser forest cover means that a higher proportion of overall plant productivity is allocated to ground vegetation and thus is available to roe deer). The effect of large predators was relatively weak in highly productive environments and in regions with mild climate, but increased markedly in regions with low vegetation productivity and harsh winters. Other potentially limiting factors (hunting, summer drought and competition with red deer) had no significant impact on roe deer abundance.

Main conclusions  The analyses revealed the combined effect of bottom-up and top-down control on roe deer: on a biogeographical scale, population abundance of roe deer has been shaped by food-related factors and large predators, with additive effects of the two species of predators. The results have implications for management of roe deer populations in Europe. First, an increase in roe deer abundance can be expected as environmental productivity increases due to climate change. Secondly, recovery plans for large carnivores should take environmental productivity and winter severity into account when predicting their impact on prey.