Woodland grazing toolbox

Woodland grazing toolbox

4.1.1 Relative palatability of key field layer species

The tables below provide information that you may need when assessing the impact of herbivores on the woodland field layer.  More detailed information is available on the Relative palatability of key upland field layer species.

In general, coarse, tussocky grasses, mosses and woody heath species are less palatable than fine-leaved grasses and herbs. However when you add variables such as changes in digestibility during the growing season, proximity and abundance of more palatable species, etc., the picture can become quite complicated. These tables should be regarded as a rough rather than a definitive guide.

If you have experience that differs from the guidance given here, we would like to hear from you.

Palatability of key field layer species - grasses and rushes

Grassland of non-tussock forming species within a woodland mosaic will be preferentially grazed.
SpeciesLatin namePalatabilityComments
Common Bent-grass Agrostis capillaris High  
Red fescue Festuca rubra High

Sheep's fescue is only moderately palatable

Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus High  
Wavy Hair-grass Deschampsia flexuosa Medium  
Tufted Hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa Medium

In upland areas, this species appears to have greater palatability due to less silica in the leaves

Sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum Medium  
Purple Moor-grass Molinia caerulea Low

New growth in the spring and early summer is moderately palatable, especially to some breeds of cattle

Mat grass nardus stricta Low

Generally avoided, especially by sheep, though some grazing occurs in the winter and early spring

Soft rush Juncus effusus Low

New growth in the spring and early summer may be grazed by cattle

Sharp-flowered rush Juncus acutiflorus Low

New growth in the spring and early summer may be grazed by cattle

Greater Wood-rush Luzula sylvatica Low/high

Palatability of great woodrush for cattle is high


Palatability of key field layer species - Woody species and tall herbs

Woody species become relatively more attractive to herbivores in the winter when the palatability and digestibility of non-woody species are relatively low.

SpeciesLatin namePalatabilityComments
Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum High

Honeysuckle is only able to climb trees when browsing impacts are fairly low. Honeysuckle present in the field layer but not climbing trees is a good indicator of significant browsing impacts

Bramble Rubus fruitcosus High

The presence of well-developed bramble capable of snagging clothing suggests low browsing impacts. Dead, snagging bramble branches suggest low impacts have been present for several growing seasons

Raspberry Rubus idaeus High  
Ivy Hedera helix High  
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria High  
Heather Calluna vulgaris Medium

Heather height and growth form is a good indicator of browsing impacts in opem ground habitats. Very low, 'carpet' or 'drumstick' growth forms suggest significant browing impacts

Blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus High

Blaeberry is the most palatable of the heath species, though in spring/summer less preferentially browsed than neighbouring palatable grasses and herbs. A good indicator of browsing impact in acid woodland

Bog myrtle Myrica gale Medium

Bog myrtle growth form is an indicator of browsing pressure in open habitats. Tall bog myrtle (0.5m or more) with relatively straight and sparsely branched main stems suggests low browsing impacts

Cross-leaved heath Ercica tetralix Low  


Palatability of key field layer species - Ground layer and small field layer herbs

SpeciesLatin namePalatabilityComments
Dog's mercury Mercurialis High

Particularly attractive to sheep. May remain untouched by deer

Devil's-bit scabious  Succisa pratensis Medium  
Heath bedstraw Galium saxatile  Low
  1. of low palatability, heath bedstraw is often the first species to assert itself through abundant flowering following the fencing out of large herbivores
Tormentil Potentilla erecta Low  
Primrose Primula vulgaris Low  
Bluebell Hycainthoides non-scripta Low High for muntjac deer
Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella Low  


Palatability of key field layer species - Ferns

SpeciesLatin namePalatabilityComments
Buckler ferns Dryopteris sp Medium High for deer in the spring
Lady fern  Athyrium felix-femina Medium  
Lemon scented fern Oreopteris limbosperma Medium  
Hard fern Blechnum spicant Low

Moderately palatable for deer. May be relatively more palatable on nutrient-poor soils

Bracken Pteridium aquilinum Low

Bracken is toxic, especially to cattle, but young fronds may be browsed in late spring

Palatability of key field layer species - Mosses and lichens

Very low palatability for all species.