Europe's red deer population is more affected by humans than by wolves or other predators, ecologists have found

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Red deer in the morning. Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

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Red deer in the morning. Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Along with the occasional bison and elk, the red deer is the largest wild animal in Europe. An international study led by wildlife ecologists from the University of Freiburg has now investigated the factors that influence red deer populations in a particular area. The researchers were able to show that animal population densities in Europe were primarily affected by human hunting and land use, not by large predators such as wolves, lynxes and brown bears.

„Large carnivores are often considered key factors controlling prey populations in undisturbed ecosystems, which is less evident in human-dominated landscapes. Our study illustrates that these interactions are context-specific,” says Dr. Suzanne TS van Beek Calcon, former Ph. .D. Chair of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Freiburg and first author of the study Published In Journal of Applied Ecology.

The researchers collected data on red deer population density at 492 study sites in 28 European countries and analyzed the influence of various factors such as habitat productivity, presence of large carnivores, human activities, climate variables and the conservation status of the area. . An evaluation of the data showed that human hunting reduced red deer densities more than the presence of all large carnivores.

Human land use, on the other hand, has led to an increase in red deer density. In most cases, the presence of large carnivores did not have a statistically significant effect on red deer populations. The number of red deer decreased only when three predators – wolf, lynx and bear – were present together in the same area. However, the study did not examine how the presence of predators affects red deer behavior.

Return of the Wolf

The study also sheds new light on the debate about the wolf's return to Central Europe, notes Dr. Marco Heurich, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Freiburg. of study.

„Our research shows that the return of large carnivores such as wolves alone does not have a major impact on the occurrence of red deer. This is because in Central Europe, human impacts predominate both directly and indirectly by interfering with red deer habitats. By killing animals.”

In addition, the mortality rate of wolves in Central European landscapes is very high, mainly due to road traffic, which further limits their influence on prey populations. „However, we also found high variability in red deer density, indicating that there may be specific conditions under which large carnivores have an impact. Investigating this will be the task of future studies,” says Heurich.

More information:
Suzanne TS van Beeck Calkoen et al, Numerical top-down effects on red deer (Cervus elaphus) are mainly shaped by humans rather than large carnivores across Europe. Journal of Applied Ecology (2023) DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.14526

Press Information:
Journal of Applied Ecology


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