03 • 12 • 2012

Young Forest Stands – a Delicacy on Elk’s Menu

Biologists call elk sedentary animals - they stick to their territories and do not stray without a particular need. Elk “love” forests and, when choosing their habitats, seek areas with glades, wetlands, areas flooded by beavers or humans, grassy swamps, young forest stands and overgrown clearings. Elk are especially fond of pine and deciduous forest stands with rich and thick undergrowth. This is due to the fact that, among all Latvian even-toed ungulates, elk have specific requirements when it comes to food – it must be abundant in fibre and as diverse as possible.

Elk are herbivores, enthusiasts of plant-based foods. If conditions are favourable, they can consume 30 to 40 kilograms of food per 24 hours. In the summertime, elk feed both during the day and at night, alternating between brief feeding periods and rest. In the areas where elk are frequently disturbed by day, especially in hot weather conditions, when there are many bloodsucking insects, the animals become more active during night-time and early hours, spending their days drowsing close to feeding grounds in nearby thickets. In the wintertime, except a few short breaks, elk are forced to pasture day and night. Compared to the green season, they have to be more modest, getting by with 15 to 20 kilograms of food, and even 10 kilograms in unfavourable conditions.

Elk feed on deciduous tree leaves and bushes, twigs, seedlings, the bark of ligneous plants that can be found throughout Latvia, various grasses and roots. Even though their menu is very changeable and season-dependant, elk spend considerable share of their active lives in young forest stands, preferably untouched by human hands, and untended forest stands and overgrown clearings. In such biotopes, adult elk consume four to seven (in favourable conditions) tonnes of food per year. Their list of delicacies is topped by coniferous tree seedlings and leaves – up to four tonnes per year! Deciduous tree leaves and bushes are ranked second with one or two tonnes per year, the bark of ligneous plants is third – up to 700 kilograms per year. Of course, elk also enjoy bilberry bushes, various grasses (several hundred kilograms per year) and some mosses and lichens.


In the spring, elk prefer the seedlings of ash-trees, aspen-trees and other soft deciduous trees and bushes, upon which these large animals stumble mostly in young forest stands and overgrown agricultural territories. In the summer, elk can still be spotted in young forest stands, picking off the leaves of ligneous plants, nibbling branches, toppings and peeling off bark slips. During the warm season, elk can also be seen in cultivated meadows, eating grass, and – even more often – in swampy meadows, grassy and transitional swamps, near ponds, riverbanks and lake coasts, since they like moisture-loving plants – bogbeans, irises, reedmaces and the young leaves of reeds. Regarding farmers’ harvest, elk will gladly eat cabbages and beetroots, but they will completely ignore potatoes and loathe hay. Elk do not wait for the end of summer. Their menu of grasses begins to dwindle, reducing to the minimum by autumn. The seedlings of trees and bushes, as well as bark, gradually become their main foods.


It is interesting that shortly before the mating period, males feed only on one type of grass – buckbeans. They are on a diet during the mating period, eating foods containing fibre, but less than on other occasions. Females, on the contrary, do not observe any particular diet during the period. When their mating rituals are done, males mostly feed on the young branches of ligneous plants, seedlings and bark.


In the autumn and winter, elk are forced to consume many ligneous plants. September through April, elk must get by with ligneous plants – their menu consists of at least 30 species of trees and bushes. Goat willows, ash-trees, rowan-trees, pine-trees and oaks top their menu. Nevertheless, elk do not slight lime-trees, buckthorns, maples, birches and alders. Obviously, they seek out fresh food first – young trees. With the arrival of a lasting snow cover, elk flock to more concentrated feeding grounds – preferably young forest stands or large forest groves in the worst case scenario. They are particularly fond of young pine, fir and aspen tree stands – their young seedlings are a true delicacy for elk. However, these animals also gladly settle near other young trees, preferably in untended thickets - osiers, buckthorns and rowan-trees.


From the viewpoint of forest management, it is necessary to admit that the elk can do more harm to their habitats than other animals. The most harm is usually done to young and tended forest stands. The plants in their habitats suffer greatly. Initially, elk reach out for foods that are at their height levels, so that they do not have to stretch or bend. If, as a result of this, a fir-tree loses its top, it will survive, whereas a pine-tree will most likely perish. Even though birches are not particularly favoured among elk, an elk family can nibble several tops in thin birch and aspen stands. Elk do not like to bend, but they consider young plantations a delicacy and will work out a bit to mow down an entire plantation. To satisfy their hunger, elk can even damage 40-year-old stands, since their ration partly consists of bark.