The constraint caused by wild ungulates on forest regeneration is increasing worldwide. Hypotheses for plant association effects predict that species susceptible to herbivory can gain protection from other neighbouring plant species. In theory, such interactions could help limit the impact of browsing on the regeneration of specific tree species. However, the presence of neighbouring species can also result in increasing competition for resources between species. The resultant effects on forest regeneration of these interactions, both positive (protection against herbivores) and negative (inter-specific competition) are still unclear. To gain insight, we coupled models of browsing by roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and of forest dynamics to simulate trajectories of oak (Quercus petraea (Matt.) Liebl.) regeneration admixed with species of contrasted palatability and growth rate under different scenarios of browsing pressure and initial sapling density. We also investigated how releasing oak saplings from all or specific neighbours during the simulation affect regeneration. We found that admixed species composition had a relatively weak effect on the density of oak recruits, but a strong effect on the duration of the regeneration phase. Oak regenerated faster when admixed with species of intermediate growth and low palatability (Fagus sylvatica) than with species of fast growth and high palatability (Carpinus betulus L.), except at intermediate sapling density and high browsing pressure where we found the opposite. Releasing oak from all competitors was most effective in promoting oak regeneration when admixed with both species together, although the benefit of competition release was much weaker at high browsing pressure. Lastly, we found that at low initial sapling density (i.e., 10 saplings/m ), oak regeneration was driven only by browsing and the effect of admixing species became negligible. Our study showed that admixing oak with palatable neighbours impedes rather than improves oak regeneration due to increased competition for resources. As such, we suggest that the benefits of herbivore diversion can be off-set by increased inter-specific competition.
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