Wild ungulates such as red deer, roe deer and wild boar are key drivers of forest ecosystems. Across the northern hemisphere, their range and abundance is increasing, while at the same time forest conversion and habitat fragmentation have led to a large variation in ungulate density and composition among areas. Understanding ungulate density impacts are important in order to prevent shifts towards undesired states, such as from forest to heathland. Here, we assess the effects of ungulate density on forest regeneration, development and functioning. We carried out a systematic literature review of 433 published studies in temperate forests, and used the data to model dose-response curves of the effects of ungulate density on three sets of forest attributes; tree regeneration (abundance, species richness and composition), forest structure (horizontal and vertical), and forest functioning (nutrient cycling in soil, timber and food production). Ungulate density averaged 23.6 km−2 across studies. Ungulates had a negative effect on forest regeneration, structure and functioning in 70% of the evaluated cases. The dose-response curves had a sigmoidal, rather than a unimodal shape. Critical tipping points, where ungulates started to have a negative effect on forest regeneration, were found at an ungulate metabolic weight density of 115 kg km−2 for forest regeneration, 141 kg km−2 for forest structure, and 251 kg km−2 for forest functioning, which is roughly equivalent to 10, 13 and 23 roe deer per km−2. Forest regeneration was most sensitive to immediate browsing and trampling impacts of small seedlings, while forest functioning was least sensitive because of time lags. However, these effects may build up over time. We suggest research priorities for studying ungulate-plant interactions in temperate forests, and make management recommendations how to balance wildlife with a functioning forest.
- Temperate forest
- Tipping points