Large wild ungulates are a major biotic factor shaping plant communities. They influence species abundance and occurrence directly by herbivory and plant dispersal, or indirectly by modifying plant-plant interactions and through soil disturbance. In forest ecosystems, researchers’ attention has been mainly focused on deer overabundance. Far less is known about the effects on understory plant dynamics and diversity of wild ungulates where their abundance is maintained at lower levels to mitigate impacts on tree regeneration. We used vegetation data collected over ten years on 82 pairs of exclosure (excluding ungulates) and control plots located in a nation-wide forest monitoring network (Renecofor). We report the effects of ungulate exclusion on (i) plant species richness and ecological characteristics, (ii) and cover percentage of herbaceous and shrub layers. We also analysed the response of these variables along gradients of ungulate abundance, based on hunting statistics, for wild boar ( Sus scrofa ) , red deer ( Cervus elaphus ) and roe deer ( Capreolus capreolus ). Outside the exclosures, forest ungulates maintained a higher species richness in the herbaceous layer (+15%), while the shrub layer was 17% less rich, and the plant communities became more light-demanding. Inside the exclosures, shrub cover increased, often to the benefit of bramble ( Rubus fruticosus agg.). Ungulates tend to favour ruderal, hemerobic, epizoochorous and non-forest species. Among plots, the magnitude of vegetation changes was proportional to deer abundance. We conclude that ungulates, through the control of the shrub layer, indirectly increase herbaceous plant species richness by increasing light reaching the ground. However, this increase is detrimental to forest-specialist species, and contributes to a landscape-level biotic homogenisation. Even at population density levels considered to be harmless for overall plant species richness, ungulates remain a conservation issue for plant community composition. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Energy, Environment Protection, Nuclear Power Engineering