It is well established that the dynamics of mammalian populations vary in time, in relation to density and weather, and often in interaction with phenotypic differences (sex, age and social status). Habitat quality has recently been identified as another significant source of individual variability in vital rates of deer, including roe deer where spatial variations in fawn body mass were found to be only about a tenth of temporal variations. The approach used was to classify the habitat into blocks a priori, and to analyse variation in animal performance among the predefined areas. In a fine-grained approach, here we use data collected over 24 years on 1,235 roe deer fawns captured at known locations and the plant species composition sampled in 2001 at 578 sites in the Chizé forest to determine the spatial structure at a fine scale of both vegetation and winter body mass of fawns, and then to determine links between the two. Space and time played a nearly equal role in determining fawn body masses of both sexes, each accounting for about 20% of variance and without any interaction between them. The spatial distribution of fawn body mass was perennial over the 24 years considered and predicted values showed a 2 kg range according to location in the reserve, which is much greater than suggested in previous work and is enough to have strong effects on fawn survival. The spatial distribution and the range of predicted body masses were closely similar in males and females. The result of this study is therefore consistent with the view that the life history traits of roe deer are only weakly influenced by sexual selection. The occurrence of three plant species that are known to be important food items in spring/summer roe deer diets, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), bluebell (Hyacinthoides sp.) and Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sp.) was positively related to winter fawn body mass. The occurrence of species known to be avoided in spring/summer roe deer diets [e.g. butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and beech (Fagus sylvatica)], was negatively related to fawn body mass. We conclude that the spatial variation in the body mass of fawns in winter in this forest is as important as the temporal variation, and that the distribution of plant species that are actively selected during spring and summer is an important determinant of spatial variation in winter fawn body mass. The availability of these plants is therefore likely to be a key factor in the dynamics of roe deer populations.
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