The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, but three European Bison (Bison bonasus) might be helping to change that. The trio have made history this week by being the first of these animals to roam wild in Britain for thousands of years.
These gentle giants are making themselves at home in the Kent countryside, as part of The Wilder Blean Project, led by the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust. This is a rewilding experiment, to see how much the bison can restore the ecology of the area, and hopefully bring many positive benefits to other species living in the surroundings.
The quadrupeds are acting as “ecosystem engineers”, changing the ecology of the landscape by the way they move through the woodlands. With their size, natural behaviors, and dietary habits, they will open up more patches of light-filled bare ground that will create more microhabitats for plants and insects, which in turn will benefit species of birds, bats, and even lizards.
The bison will also help create a more climate resilient landscape, as these changes to the woodland should also help the area to absorb more carbon. This comes at the perfect time as the UK remains in the grip of a heatwave, with temperatures exceeding 40°C (104°F) for the first time.
The bison themselves have arrived from two separate wildlife parks: two young females from Fota wildlife park in Cork, Ireland, and an older matriarch from Highland wildlife park in Scotland, according to The Guardian. It is hoped they will be joined by a bull from Germany in August, whose arrival was delayed due to Brexit import complications.
“We want Wilder Blean to mark the beginning of a new era for conservation in the UK. We need to revolutionise the way we restore natural landscapes, relying less on human intervention and more on natural engineers like bison, boar and beaver,” Evan Bowen-Jones, Chief Executive Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust said in a statement.
The three females have been fitted with tracking collars to allow the team to study their movements and which plants they are interacting with the most. These fluffy bulldozers will help with seed dispersal, depositing the seeds of different plants as they move through the vegetation. At the moment they have a 5 hectare (12 acre) fenced space to enjoy but this will increase tenfold to 50 hectares (123 acres) when the male arrives, The Guardian reports. Visitors to Blean Woods may even be able to spot the bison as they settle into their new home.
European bison are Europe’s largest wild land mammal with the largest bulls weighing up to 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds). Expected to live around between 18-24 years, it is hoped that these females will eventually breed, producing one calf a year.
The area has a permit to hold 10 animals with the suggestion that the bison may be sent around different areas of Britain if the experiment proves successful.
All European bison are descended from just 12 founder individuals after the population was nearly completely wiped out in the early 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss.
In time the bison will be joined by other grazing animals, including Exmoor ponies, Iron Age pigs, and Longhorn cattle, whose natural behaviors will act in a similar way to the bison, changing the landscape for the better without the need for human intervention.
The £1.125 million project was funded by money raised from players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.
[H/T: The Guardian]