Grasses, which dominate many terrestrial ecosystems, sustain high densities of grazing mammals, so are of great economic and ecological importance. Traditionally, grasses are thought to be adapted to tolerate grazing rather than defend against it; however, silica deposited in the leaves of grasses has recently been shown to act as a feeding deterrent to invertebrate herbivores and small mammals. This study assesses whether silica is effective as a feeding deterrent to larger mammalian herbivores. We assess the impact of manipulated silica levels in five grass species on the feeding preferences of sheep both within and between grass species. Sheep feeding behaviour was driven by between-species differences in palatability. Hence, within a single species silica addition did not cause significant changes in feeding preference. However, there were significant differences in both the feeding preferences and bite rates between grass species, and these differences were much more marked when the grasses had been exposed to high levels of silica. The impacts that silica had on preference were least pronounced in palatable species (e.g. Poa annua) compared with less-palatable species (e.g. Brachypodium pinnatum and Festuca ovina). Sheep fed for longer, took more bites and had a higher bite rate on the grass species with the lowest leaf silica concentrations, namely P. annua. Sheep were less affected by silica defences than smaller, non-ruminant herbivores, but the changes in species preference rankings caused by silica suggest it may lead to changes in sward composition. Further, in species that are already relatively low in palatability, silica-induced reductions in bite rate could potentially reduce forage intake rates, with consequences for sheep performance. © 2009 Gesellschaft für Ökologie.
- Feeding behaviour
- Physical defences