Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 38, Issue 6, pp 393–399 | Cite as

How browsing by red deer impacts on litter decomposition in a native regenerating woodland in the Highlands of Scotland

  • Kathryn A. HarrisonEmail author
  • Richard D. Bardgett
Original Paper


Herbivores can indirectly affect ecosystem productivity and processes such as nutrient cycling and decomposition by altering the quantity and quality of resource inputs into the decomposer subsystem. Here, we tested how browsing by red deer impacts on the decomposition of, and nutrient loss from, birch leaf litter (Betula pubescens), and tested whether effects of browsing on these measures were direct, via alteration of the quality of leaf litter, or indirect through long term impacts of deer browsing on soil biological properties. This was tested in a microcosm experiment using soil and litter taken from inside and outside three individual fenced exclosures located at Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, Scotland. We found that litter of un-browsed trees decomposed faster than that from browsed trees, irrespective of whether soil was sourced from inside or outside exclosures. These findings suggest that effects of browsing on litter quality, rather than on soil biological properties, are the key determinant of enhanced decomposition in un-browsed areas of this ecosystem. Despite this, we found no consistent impact of browsing on litter C:N, a key indicator of litter quality; however, the rate of litter decomposition was linearly and negatively related to litter C:N when analysed across all the sites, indicating that this measure, in part, contributed to variation in rates of decomposition in this ecosystem. Our findings indicate that herbivores impact negatively on rates of decomposition in this ecosystem, ultimately retarding nutrient cycling rates, and that these effects are, in part, related to changes in litter quality.


Herbivores Nutrient cycling Decomposition Litter Soil 



We are very grateful to Scottish Natural Heritage who allowed us to carry out the work at Creag Meagaidh NNR, and for providing us with accommodation at Aberarder Farm. We are especially grateful to Peter Duncan, the warden at Creag Meagaidh, who helped us locate the exclosures and who has always been on hand for help and advice concerning the reserve. We thank H. Quirk for analytical assistance and also D. Carline who helped with fieldwork.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Environmental and Natural Sciences, Department of Biological SciencesLancaster UniversityLancasterUK

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