3 Jan 2013
Swan-plant interactions in a chalk river catchment

BRANTA — Kevin Anthony Wood

Swan-plant interactions in a chalk river catchment

Institution: Bournemouth University, in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK
Supervisors: Matthew O'Hare (CEH), Richard Stillman (BU), Francis Daunt (CEH)
Details: PhD 2011 (Completed)
Address: School of Applied Sciences, Bournemouth University, Poole, BH12 5BB, UK (Jan 2013) Email
Subject Keywords: Avian behaviour, Chalk stream, Foraging ecology, Grazing, Herbivore, Human-wildlife conflict, Individual-based model, Macrophyte, Plant community, Population model, Ranunculus, River, Swan, Vegetation dynamics, Water crowfoot, Waterfowl, Wildfowl, Wildlife management
Species Keywords: Mute swan, Cygnus olor

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Plants are of fundamental importance to the structure, functioning and service provision of many ecosystems. However, herbivores can have negative ecological and socioeconomic effects on plant communities through consumption, trampling and alteration of nutrient cycles. In this thesis I address a particular herbivore-plant interaction: the grazing of plants in chalk river catchments, principally the submerged macrophyte water crowfoot (Ranunculus penicillatus ssp. pseudofluitans (Syne) S.D. Webster) and terrestrial pasture grass species, by flocks of non-breeding mute swans (Cygnus olor Gmelin, 1789). This research was carried out over two years in the River Frome catchment (Dorset, UK).

Based on a meta-analysis of previous waterfowl grazing studies I show that waterfowl biomass density (kg ha-1) rather than individual density (ind. ha-1) is a better predictor of reductions in plant standing crop. Most studies to date have analysed such reductions using only individual densities, despite large between-taxa variation in waterfowl body mass, diet and intake rates. I quantified the abundance, species richness, evenness, flowering and dominance of the chalk river aquatic plant community in relation to biotic and abiotic factors during the growth-, peak-, and recession-phases of the growth cycle. The relative importance of herbivory, riparian shading, water temperature and distance downstream varied between different phases of the plant growth cycle, highlighting the importance of seasonal patterns in regulation of plant community structure.

The River Frome swan population varied seasonally, being highest in the winter. The population was dominated by non-breeding adults and juveniles that lived in flocks. These flocks exhibited strong seasonal habitat switches between terrestrial pasture in winter and spring, and river in summer and autumn. I provided evidence that this switch was linked to the seasonal decrease in water velocity between spring and summer, which reduced the metabolic costs of river feeding and increased the relative profitability of aquatic food resources. I used a mathematical population model and an individual-based behavioural model respectively to explore two management options for the alleviation of the swan grazing conflict in chalk rivers: population control and habitat alterations. Population control measures, such as clutch manipulations, fertility control, culling or translocations, were predicted to be unsuccessful except at impractically high levels of management effort, due to the effects of immigration and high survival rates in offsetting removed eggs or individuals. Habitat alterations, in particular the narrowing of river channels to cause a local increase in water velocity and thus swan foraging costs, are more promising management options as they require lower management effort, are less ethically controversial, and address the fundamental reason why swans select their food resources, the rate of net energy gain ('profitability').


Published Papers

Wood, K.A., Stillman, R.A., Clarke, R.T., Daunt, F. & O'Hare, M.T. 2012. Understanding plant community responses to combinations of biotic and abiotic factors in different phases of the plant growth cycle. PLoS ONE, 7: e49824.

Wood, K.A., Stillman, R.A., Clarke, R.T., Daunt, F. & O'Hare, M.T. 2012. Measuring submerged macrophyte standing crop in shallow rivers: a test of methodology. Aquatic Botany, 102: 28-33.

Wood, K.A., Stillman, R.A., Clarke, R.T., Daunt, F. & O'Hare, M.T. 2012. The impact of waterfowl herbivory on plant standing crop: a meta-analysis. Hydrobiologia, 686: 157-167.

Wood, K.A., Stillman, R.A., Daunt, F. & O'Hare, M.T. 2012. An individual-based model of swan-macrophyte conflicts on a chalk river. In: P.J. Boon & P.J. Raven (eds), River Conservation and Management. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, pp. 339-343.

Wood, K.A. 2011. Mute swans in chalk river catchments: a conservation conflict? Freshwater Biological Association News, 54: 6-7.

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