Wild deer exert strong top–down control on forest composition by browsing on palatable trees, and these effects are exacerbated as red, fallow, and roe deer populations increase in northern temperate forests. However, the relationship between deer abundance and plant recruitment remains poorly documented. Here, we combined camera trap and vegetation plot data to quantify the shape of the relationship between habitat utilization by deer (red, fallow and roe deer) with different components of the forest understory in ten sites distributed across a temperate mixed forest in the Veluwe, the Netherlands. The list of forest attributes included the density, richness and diversity of saplings, the proportion of conifers to broadleaves, the number of browsed broadleaves and conifers, the forest basal area, the understory cover of shrubs, moss and bare soil and the depth of the litter layer. When applying General Linear Mixed Models to those camera trap data, six of the eleven forest variables were related to the utilization level (UL) by deer. With increasing UL by fallow deer, there was a decrease in sapling species richness (β = −0.26). With increasing UL by red deer, there was a decrease in litter depth (β = −0.14) and an increase in browsed broadleaf stems (β = 0.40). With increasing UL by roe deer, there was a decrease in species richness of sapling plants (β = −0.26), Shannon diversity (β = −0.11) and shrub cover (β = −0.36), whereas there was an increase in stem density (β = 0.06). When combining all deer species into one guild, a negative relation was found between UL by deer and sapling richness (β = −0.21), diversity (β = −0.09) and litter depth (β = −0.14) and a positive relation with sampling density (β = 0.04). The relationship between UL by deer and different forest attributes followed a linear log10 shape. When back transforming, the response was curvilinear with large changes at a low UL and small changes when the UL was high. Yet, the exact shape of the curve varied according to (a) biotic factors specific to each study location. The conservation of temperate forests can benefit from limiting the size of deer populations and the time deer spend browsing in forest patches with high biodiversity value.

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