Faecal analysis is a well-known technique used for obtaining knowledge on the diet of wild grazing herbivores. Insights in their diets is of large importance as it is necessary for the analysis of the habitats of these species and the understanding of the degree of separation (Walker, 1976). Since Steward (1967) described a detailed method for faecal analysis, it has been widely used for determining the diet of many species. Especially many African herbivores have been studied, resulting in a large amount of information of great importance for the management of their habitats.
The method of faecal analysis has a few unique advantages, making it one of the most popular methods for determining the diet of herbivores. First of all, the collection of faecal samples does not interfere with the studied animals, making it possible to sample under natural conditions without many limitations. It does not restrict the movement of the animals and can also be used on animals from mixed communities. Therefore, it is especially valuable for studying endangered species. Next to its low interference, sampling is economically favourable as only little equipment is necessary, making it a cheap method, and only little time is needed for sampling. Interestingly, it can be used to compare diets of several animals and food eaten at different times can be distinguished.
However, several disadvantages of faecal analysis have also been reported, which have to be considered to be able to draw correct conclusions on the samples. The greatest limitation has been reported to be accuracy as many less desirable situations can occur. Especially plant identification can be difficult, as some species are difficult to separate at species level or become unidentifiable in the faeces. Besides, the comparison between herbivore species can be difficult to assess, as fragmentation during digestion may differ between species, which may bias the proportion of species in the faeces.
Next to faecal analysis, a few other methods of herbivore diet analysis have been developed, including utilization techniques, stomach analysis, direct observation of the animal and fistula sampling. Each of these techniques have their own advantages and limitations, which have to be considered before choosing the most effective method of diet analysis.
Amongst others, the Research Ecology Group of Wageningen University conducts many studies on herbivore diet using faecal analysis. A large reference collection has been built, consisting of a large amount of plants found in Europe, Africa and Western Asia. Especially many herbivore species in Africa have been studied, resulting in a large amount of information on their diets and corresponding habitats.