Age class, density and temporal effects on diet composition of sheep in an alpine ecosystem
Ragnhild Mobæk et al. in Basic and Applied Ecology
Ragnhild Mobæk, Atle Mysterud, Øystein Holand and Gunnar Austrheim
Understanding diet selection is important since diet determines energy intake and therefore growth of ungulate populations. Yet very few studies have reported annual variation in diet. Density-dependent diet choice by large herbivores has been reported several times, but these studies are typically either short-term or they lack replication of the density treatment. In a landscape-scale experiment with 3 replicates of two densities (25 and 80 individuals/km2) of domestic sheep, we determined diet composition using microhistological analysis during 6 summer grazing seasons (2002–2007) in alpine habitats. We tested how age class, density and temporal variation (within season, annually, and over years) affected summer diet. There was marked evidence of additive effects of these factors on overall diet composition, but interactions were few. The interaction between density and annual variation was an important determinant of the proportion of the main forage component (Avenella flexuosa), but not of the proportions of herbs, Salix spp. and for “other” forage plants. Surprisingly, the density effect on this intermediate quality forage (A. flexuosa) was not consistent among years (both positive, negative and no effects), likely arising due to large variation in the proportion of the other forage plants. We discuss how foraging ecology can supplement the insight from life history theory in explaining variation in vital rates.