Forest pasturing and foddering: stable isotope prespectives

The use of forests for pasturing and fodder resources remains globally an important, preventing over-grazing and providing complementary fodder in times of poor pasture. Traditionally, forests in Europe were a rich source of collected forage (leafy hay) in the form of branches and leaves. At the same time, herd animals can have a negative impact on forests, where grazing is unchecked. The first herders of Central and Northern Europe experienced a landscape ‘Bristling with forests and foul swamps’ as described by Tacitus in 98AD [1]. The impact of animals on forests has been a focus of archaeologists for over 40 years. For example, Iversen [2] highlighted the importance of cattle in the expansion of the initial Neolithic settlements in his landam theory. The elm decline was initial contributed to increased use of leafy hay as animal forage.

How can we study forest pasture and foddering via stable carbon isotopes?

The canopy effect is where plants growing under dense forest canopies will exhibit depleted δ13C values. This is due to a combination of carbon -13 depletion of atmospheric CO2 under the canopy caused by CO2 respired by decaying organic matter and low light intensity at the forest floor decreasing photosynthesis efficiency. Consequently, animals browsing and grazing under heavy forest canopies or being fed leafy hay from these environments will exhibit low carbon isotope values in their tissues. Using this principal, researchers such as Dorothee Drucker and Rhiannon Stevens have explored the use of forests by wild ruminants past and present.

Schematic of the Canopy effect on δ13C values of plants growing under different canopy densities and its relationship to different ruminant tissues (cone collagen/enamel bioapatite)

A cautionary note

The issue of equifinality can arise with the interpretation of stable isotopic values because different growing environments can produce similar effects on the stable isotopic ratios of plants. These continue up the food chain. For example, waterlogged environments can have a similar impact on δ13C values of plant communities as a dense forest canopy. Lynch and colleagues interpreted depleted δ13C values observed in British aurochs as a reflection of animals feeding on plants from waterlogged environments. Whereas, a similar study by Noe-Nygaard and colleagues of Scandinavian aurochs suggested these animals were forest dwellers. This is why it is key prior to the interpretation of stable isotopic results that robust interpretative frameworks using paleoenvironmental are created for testing hypotheses.

Independent methods for determining forest foddering

Compound-specific stable nitrogen isotope analysis of collagen amino acids provides an independent means for identifying consumption of woody plants, such as leafy hay. Developed by researchers at University of Bristol, direct evidence of the plant composition of animal fodder (woody/herbaceous) can be uncovered using the dietary β values based on δ15N CSIA of amino acids from incremental samples of dentine from cattle molars. These values represent the Δ15NGlx-Phe values of the plants at the base of the food web, using a known trophic offset of −4.0‰ between cattle and their diet. The dietary β values are then be compared with established ranges of Δ15NGlx-Phe values expected for herbaceous (−5.4±2.1‰) and woody plants (−9.3±1.6‰), based on modern references. Combining incremental analysis of enamel bioapatite and CSIA-AA of dentine of the same tooth provides a powerful method to identify forest pasturing and seasonal use of leafy-hay.

Look out for upcoming papers by myself and colleagues from University of Bristol, and European institutions from Hungary, Poland, France and Germany, discussing the role of forests in LBK cattle husbandry uncovered during the NeoMilk project (ERC-advance awarded to Prof. Richard Evershed).


1. Bogucki, P., 1988. Forest farmers and stockholders. Early agriculture and its consequences in North-Central Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge press.

2. Iversen, J., 1969. The influence of prehistoric man on vegetation, in The Neolithisation of Denmark: 150 years of debate., A. Fischer and K. Kristiansen, Editors. Sheffield Archaeological Monographs: Sheffield. p. 105-16.

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