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Comparative foraging and nutrition of horses and cattle in European wetlands

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Summary

1.Equids are generalist herbivores that co-exist with bovids of similar body size in many ecosystems. There are two major hypotheses to explain their co-existence, but few comparative data are available to test them. The first postulates that the very different functioning of their digestive tracts leads to fundamentally different patterns of use of grasses of different fibre contents. The second postulates resource partitioning through the use of different plant species. As domestic horses and cattle are used widely in Europe for the management of conservation areas, particularly in wetlands, a good knowledge of their foraging behaviour and comparative nutrition is necessary.

2.In this paper we describe resource-use by horses and cattle in complementary studies in two French wetlands. Horses used marshes intensively during the warmer seasons; both species used grasslands intensively throughout the year; cattle used forbs and shrubs much more than horses. Niche breadth was similar and overlap was high (Kulczinski’s index 0·58–0·77). Horses spent much more time feeding on short grass than cattle. These results from the two sites indicate strong potential for competition.

3.Comparative daily food intake, measured in the field during this study for the first time, was 63% higher in horses (144 gDM kg W-0·75 day-1) than in cattle (88 gDM kg W-0·75 day-1). Digestibility of the cattle diets was a little higher, but daily intake of digestible dry matter (i.e. nutrient extraction) in all seasons was considerably higher in horses (78 gDM kg W-0·75 day-1) than in cattle (51 gDM kg W-0·75 day-1). When food is limiting, horses should outcompete cattle in habitats dominated by grasses because their functional response is steeper; under these circumstances cattle will require an ecological refuge for survival during winter, woodland or shrubland with abundant dicotyledons.

4.Horses are a good tool for plant management because they remove more vegetation per unit body weight than cattle, and use the most productive plant communities and plant species (especially graminoids) to a greater extent. They feed closer to the ground, and maintain a mosaic of patches of short and tall grass that contributes to structural diversity at this scale. Cattle use broadleaved plants to a greater extent than horses, and can reduce the rate of encroachment by certain woody species.
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Keywords: diet; food intake; grazing management; habitat selection; herbivory; niche overlap

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2002

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