Abstract The compensatory response of plants to defoliation is likely to have important effects on plant–ungulate equilibria in forested ecosystems. We investigated the responses of six species of Mediterranean bushes to defoliation by wild ungulates, comparing an index of browsing impact with the productivity of plants in both open and exclusion plots. The data revealed a great diversity of plant responses to herbivory: Rubus ulmifolius was able to over-compensate and replace the lost tissues. Phillyrea latifolia exhibited a similar, albeit less evident, pattern, while Cistus salvifolius was severely damaged by browsing. Other species, such as Quercus ilex, Juncus acutus and Erica arborea, were not attacked to a large extent and suffered little or no harm. The results strongly suggest that Mediterranean ecosystems may tolerate large stocking rates of ungulates. However, the reduction of plant biomass due to browsing was very different in the six studied species, suggesting that when herbivory becomes severe the structure of the ecosystem will change with the more tolerant plants becoming more abundant. We can apply these results to improve management and conservation of relict coastal forests in the Mediterranean basin which are usually of small size and where decision-makers have to compromise between the conservation of plants and that of large mammals.