We hypothesised that (i) increased feeding motivation will cause sheep to move further apart as a result of individuals trying to find food and (ii) in conditions of high food availability, sheep will move less and show greater social attraction. The effects of both feeding motivation and food availability on spatial distribution was examined in eight groups of food-deprived (high feeding motivation) and satiated (low feeding motivation) sheep in good or poor food resource plots in a 2 × 2 design. Distance travelled was assessed using Global Positioning System collars, grazing time using scan sampling and social cohesion using proximity collars that record the number and duration of encounters within 4 m. Food-deprived sheep in the good-resource plots grazed the most, whereas satiated sheep in the poor-resource plots grazed the least (P = 0.004). Food deprivation had no significant effect on the number or duration of encounters and feeding motivation appeared to have little effect on spatial distribution. Contrary to expectation, sheep had more encounters (P = 0.04) of a longer total duration (P = 0.02) in poor-resource plots than in good-resource plots, indicating that sheep were showing more social cohesion if food was scarce. Our findings suggest that when food is scarce, animals may come together in an attempt to share information on food availability. However, when a highly preferred food is abundant and well dispersed, they may move apart in order to maximise the intake. It is concluded that the particular details of our experiment, namely the even distribution or absence of a highly preferred food, affected spatial distribution patterns as sheep tried to find this food and maximise the intake.
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