With Ken Slee
Browsing is defined as the eating of twigs and leaves of shrubs and trees by animals. Grazing, by comparison, is the eating of grasses, so if we are talking about what grasses sambar eat, the title of this column is not technically correct. However, we are splitting hairs!
Sambar are clearly opportunists when it comes to feeding – they will eat the best plants available where they are at the time – blackberry foliage, dogwood, white clover, ferns, grasses or whatever. Other deer species may not so versatile and fallow deer, for example, are primarily grazers and hence are usually seen feeding and living in or near paddocks.
While it is usually fairly easy to identify shrubs and trees that are being browsed by sambar from the presence of tracks, missing leaves and twigs and often a ‘browse line’, when they are feeding on grasses it may be quite a bit harder to be absolutely sure. With most grasses, nipped-off leaves will be difficult to spot and tracks will often be hard to find or identify with certainty. However, sometimes evidence of feeding is very conspicuous, tracks are obvious and nearby beds and droppings leave no doubt as to the animals responsible.
Forsyth and Davis (2011) examined the rumen contents of 102 sambar and found that the diet of these animals consisted of around 50 per cent browse, 20 per cent grasses and 20 per cent ferns with a shift towards browse in spring and towards grasses in autumn.
There are probably scores of different grass species present in sambar country, both native and introduced. In eucalypt forest, most will probably be natives and generally adapted to harsh conditions, fire and poor soils and (I suspect) will be rather unpalatable and of low nutritional value unless they are regrowing after fire. In fringe country, it is much more likely that there will be a mix of more palatable native species such as wallaby and kangaroo grasses and highly palatable, introduced pasture species like ryegrass, clovers and cocksfoot, particularly if fertilisers have been spread. While alpine meadows are not all that common in sambar country they do occur and due to past or current cattle grazing probably contain a mix of native and introduced grasses as well as introduced white clover. Another obvious spot to find grasses and sedges is along the margins of streams where there is likely to be more moisture and fertility and where the tree canopy doesn’t throw dense shade.
I have never really taken the time to identify specific grasses in sambar country apart from the very obvious ones like snowgrass, kangaroo grass, ryegrass and cocksfoot and I would suspect few hunters would ever bother going much beyond that point either.
However, one grass that stood out as an obvious sambar feed source over many years is apparently called giant mountain grass (scientific name unknown) – superficially it an easy-to-identify plant with very large leaves that we found associated with logging coupes and landings in alpine ash forest. This grass was often targeted by the deer and because there was plenty of bare soil around where it grew due to disturbance by dozers and trucks, deer tracks were always easy to find and identify.
Sambar hunting is as much about the journey and what you learn along the way as it is about obtaining venison or a trophy head to hang on the wall. Keeping an eye out for grasses that may have been nipped off by deer and perhaps putting a name to some of them is all part of ‘The Sambar Challenge’.
Forsyth DM and Davis NE (2011). Journal of Wildlife Management. CSIRO Publishing.