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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Fluctuations in field vole abundance indirectly influence red grouse productivity via a shared predator guild

Ludwig, Sonja C.; Roos, Staffan; Baines, David


Changes in the abundance of one prey species may indirectly affect other prey species by triggering responses in generalist predators. Here we examine relationships between two prey species that do not compete directly, the field vole Microtus agrestis, a common rodent with fluctuating populations, and the red grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica, a gamebird inhabiting open moorland, during a 27-year study on a moor in south-west Scotland. First, we test whether vole abundance was related to grouse density and demographic rates. Second, we test whether vole abundance was related to abundance indices of four common predators of both voles and grouse (red fox vulpes vulpes, weasel Mwtela nivalis, hen harrier Circus cyanew and common buzzard Buteo buteo). Third, we test whether these vole-grouse and vole-predator relationships differ in relation to grouse management, which includes the culling of foxes and weasels. We found no association between vole abundance and grouse densities, adult summer survival or nesting success. However, the ratio of young grouse per adult and the proportion of female grouse with broods in July were negatively associated with field vole abundance, suggesting increased predation of grouse chicks in years with high vole abundance. Fox indices showed a weak positive association with vole abundance when their numbers were not controlled, whilst weasel indices showed no relationship with voles. The numbers of breeding hen harriers and buzzards were also not associated with vole abundance, but the number of buzzard sightings was higher when voles were more plentiful. Our results are consistent with a negative interaction between field voles and red grouse chick survival in a pattern expected for apparent competition. Although the underlying mechanisms could not be disentangled, this interaction may be at least partly mediated by rodent-hunting raptors such as buzzards and, in periods without grouse management, foxes.


aggregative numerical response; alternative prey hypothesis; apparent competition; incidental prey; predator-prey relationship

Published in

Wildlife Biology
2020, volume: 2020, number: 2, article number: wlb.00642

Authors' information

Ludwig, Sonja C.
Game and Wildlife Conservat Trust
Roos, Staffan
RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
Baines, David
Game and Wildlife Conservat Trust

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