Early Monday morning, three gentle giants emerged from a corral in the Kent countryside to become the first wild bison to roam Britain in thousands of years.
The aim is for the animals’ natural behavior to transform a dense commercial pine forest into a dynamic natural forest. Their taste for bark will kill some trees and their bulk will open up pathways, letting light spill across the forest floor, while their love of rolling around in dust baths will create more open ground. All of this should allow new plants, insects, lizards, birds and bats to thrive.
The Wilder Blean project, near Canterbury, is an experiment to determine the extent to which bison can act as natural ‘ecosystem engineers’ and restore wildlife. The UK is one of the most nature-poor countries in the world.
A more natural forest should also absorb more carbon, helping to tackle the climate crisis. Global warming was evident when the bison were released, with England in the throes of a heatwave, and the start was to allow the bison to reach the shade of the woods before temperatures started to climb.
The European bison is the continent’s largest land animal – bulls can weigh a ton – and disappeared in the wild a century ago, but are recovering thanks to reintroduction projects across the Europe.
“Restoring naturally functioning ecosystems is a vital, low-cost tool in tackling the climate crisis,” said Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO of Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT). “We want Wilder Blean to mark the start of a new era for conservation in the UK. We need to revolutionize the way we restore natural landscapes, relying less on human intervention and more on natural engineers like bison, wild boar and beaver.
Paul Whitfield, chief executive of Wildwood Trust, said: “Not only that, but we are giving people in the UK – for the first time in over a thousand years – the chance to experience bison in the wild. It’s a really powerful, emotional, visceral experience and it’s something we’ve lost in this country.
The three bison are an older female from Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland, who will be the matriarch of the herd, as well as two younger females from Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, Ireland. “We couldn’t have asked for a better matriarch,” said Donovan Wright, one of two new bison rangers employed by the project. “She’s very, very calm, she’s very confident.”
They will be joined in mid-August by a young bull from Germany, whose arrival has been delayed by Brexit-related import complications.
All three females were fitted with tracking collars on Sunday, an approach that will allow the team to track the animals’ movements and better understand the plants they interact with. Wright said bison are like giant seed banks. “As they move, they collect seeds, then they [are] also scattering seeds along the road.
At first, the females will have a double fenced area of five hectares to explore, but this will increase to 50 hectares when the bull arrives. The animals will eventually have access to 200 hectares. Visitors to Blean Woods may be able to spot the bison from the trails, the team said.
Bison-sized tunnels are also constructed to allow animals to safely cross existing trails. They are contained by two fences, one of which is electric. Bison in other UK animal parks are confined to smaller areas and given supplementary feeding.
“I can’t wait to see how the bison will start to shape the Blean over a five, 10, 20 year period as they settle into their new home and start weighing in,” said Tom Gibbs, the other bison ranger.
Rangers spent time at the Kraansvlak project in the Netherlands, where people can now roam freely in the area occupied by 14 bison. There has never been a dangerous incident.
The bison will soon be joined by other grazing animals, including Exmoor ponies, Iron Age pigs and Longhorn cattle, whose natural behaviors complement the bison in managing the landscape without human intervention. Their impact will be closely monitored over the long term, including soil sampling and worm counts, examination of vegetation structure and monitoring of invertebrates, birds and mammals.
“If we can create diverse, vibrant, bio-abundant habitats in our overpopulated southeast corner, why shouldn’t we do so in our national parks and protected landscapes? said Paul Hadaway, director of conservation at the Kent Wildlife Trust.
Rangers expect the bison to breed, with females producing one calf a year, and the Wilder Blean site is licensed for up to 10 animals. In the future, they hope to provide bison to fund other sites in the UK, as well as to exchange animals across Europe.
The 7,000 bison living in Europe are descended from just 12 zoo animals, and the species is still classified as vulnerable, so maximizing genetic diversity is very important. The £1.1million project was funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery.