Four endangered European bison will be released into an ancient woodland in southeastern England in spring 2022 to help restore its habitat and wildlife
The UK has a big problem. According to the recently published State of Nature report (here), Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. Amongst a number of disturbing trends, the report found that populations of Britain’s most important wildlife species have decreased by an average of 60% since 1970, despite conservationists’ best efforts. These species include hares and hedgehogs and bats, many familiar bird species, like the willow tit and the turtle dove, and insects, including pollinating insects such as the high brown fritillary butterfly. Further, an additional 133 British species have already been lost since 1500.
European bison to the rescue?
“Our national parks and wild spaces don’t have the species in them that should be there”, said Paul Whitfield, Director General of the Wildwood Trust, in a video interview (here). To address this important concern, the Wildwood Trust, along with the Kent Wildlife Trust, are two charities that are the driving forces behind this effort to re-introduce European bison to the British Isles.
“It’s providing a new solution to a really important systemic problem: a loss of nature, loss of biodiversity, a loss of habitat”, Mr Whitfield said.
Indeed, the European bison, or wisent, could be just what is needed to restore habitats necessary to support thriving communities of native plant and animal species. Bison are recognized as an ‘ecosystem engineer’ because they can “change woodlands in a way that no other animal can”, according to Paul Hadaway, Director of Conservation at the Kent Wildlife Trust.
“They eat bark and create dust baths, which each have benefits for many plants and animals,” explained Dr Hadaway. “These are functions that have been missing from our UK woodlands for thousands of years and bringing them back can help restore an abundance of wildlife.”
Through their actions, bison create open, light-flooded patches that are interspersed throughout woodlands. These patches of sunlight would, for example, encourage growth of a plant known as cow wheat, which the rare butterfly, the heath fritillary, depends upon.
“By using herbivores to create more open areas and glades within the woodland we hope to see an increase in the population of the rare Heath fritillary butterfly which breeds well in areas previously managed by human intervention”, said Laura Gardner, Head of Conservation and Rewilding at the Wildwood Trust, in email.
Is this bison re-introduction just about preserving a rare butterfly, or are there other goals too?
“Our project aims to restore some of the natural balance by using a mix of large herbivores including bison, Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle and a small number of iron age pigs”, Ms Gardner replied in email.
Bison releases have already proved very successful for restoring habitats in European countries including Poland, Romania and the Netherlands. As an added benefit, bison re-introductions are also providing visitors and wildlife enthusiasts with a truly remarkable experience.
“Ultimately, we want to achieve a more diverse habitat matrix comprising a mosaic of native broadleaved woodland and a full range of the successional stages which would have been driven by the currently absent ecological functions provided by large grazing animals, that will support and maximise biodiversity potential”, Ms Gardner elaborated in email.
For these reasons, European bison, Bison bonasus, will finally return to the UK for the first time in more than 6,000 years. The bison will be accompanied by other grazing animals to create the greatest plant and animal biodiversity possible; creating stronger habitats through natural processes that will withstand the ongoing climate change and biodiversity crises as well as the decline in native British species, and hopefully in the long run, reverse them.
The bison will be re-introduced in spring 2022 into the Blean Woods, a 2,500-acre natural area located in southeastern England near Canterbury. This natural area is about the size of a thousand soccer fields, and is one of the largest ancient woodlands still surviving in England.
The £1 million ($1.4 million US) “Wilder Blean” project is the collaboration between two Kent-based charities, the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust. The Kent Wildlife Trust, which owns several woodlands in the Blean area, will be responsible for the overall management of the project, including the installation and maintenance of infrastructure, such as fencing for the trial area.
The Wildwood Trust, a leading native species conservation charity, has a native species animal park located next to the woodland where the project will take place. The Wildwood Trust team are renowned experts in native species conservation and animal husbandry so they will provide daily care for the animals and will safeguard their welfare. The project will also involve local residents, landowners, and interest groups who know and love the area.
The re-introduced bison will consist of one male and three females. It is expected that each of the female bison will produce one calf every year.
All living bison are descendants of ancient steppe bison
European bison, also known as wisent, closely resemble the American bison, Bison bison, found in North America, and they are each other’s closest living relatives. The two species can be distinguished visually by their appearance: the European bison is slightly taller and longer-legged than the American bison, and has a leaner physical build. The European bison is the largest mammal still alive on the continent, with adult males weighing as much as a ton. Yet, despite their impressive size, European bison are peaceful animals.
Like their North American cousins, modern European bison are descendants of the steppe bison, Bison priscus, which went extinct after the last Ice Age. The steppe bison was extremely common and once ranged widely across the British Isles, Europe, North and Central Asia, Beringia, and North America all the way down to Mexico. This extensive distribution is sometimes referred to as the Pleistocene bison belt.
The European bison descended from a herd of just 12 that were the last survivors of their species only 100 years ago. In the aftermath of World War I, European bison had nearly been eradicated by hunting and habitat loss, but thanks to captive breeding programs, there are roughly 5,000 alive today. The bison that will participate in this project will be imported from either the Netherlands or Poland, where several carefully managed wild herds live.
It is important to note that modern European bison may have never inhabited the British Isles after the steppe bison went extinct sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Thus, it is possible that this re-introduction is, in fact, an introduction.
The “Wilder Blean” project has already begun
There is plenty of work that must be completed before the bison arrive in early spring 2022.
“We will be setting up this project as a trial and currently we are establishing a baseline of information (no grazing) against which we can assess and evaluate impacts of herbivores on the area”, Ms Gardner explained in email. “We will have two compartments, one housing bison and a second area accommodating the long horns [cattle], ponies and a few pigs (as proxies). We will be comparing the impacts of the ‘domesticated’ cattle have with those of the bison.”
Baseline surveys will assess and track four key themes in each compartment: 1) Vegetation structure and plant community dynamics, 2) Biodiversity and bio-abundance, 3) Natural processes, 4) Ecosystem services and natural capital.
Funding for this project was provided by an award of £1,125,000 from the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund. The Dream Fund, run by the Postcode Dream Trust, was created to give charities and good causes the opportunity to deliver their dream project over a two-year period.
As the UK faces a particularly worrying biodiversity crisis, the Wilder Blean project holds promise that we can help nature to heal naturally.
“The partners in this project have long dreamt of restoring the true wild woodlands that have been missing from England for too long”, Mr Whitfield said.
“The Wilder Blean project will prove that a wilder, nature-based solution is the right one to tackling the climate and nature crisis we now face”, Dr Hadaway said. “Using missing keystone species like bison to restore natural processes to habitats is the key to creating bio-abundance in our landscape.”
“This will allow people to experience nature in a way they haven’t before, connecting them back to the natural world around them in a deeper and more meaningful way”, Mr Whitfield said. “It will inspire people and demonstrate to policy makers that nature presents the answer to the crisis we face. It will empower them to make a difference and it will prove that there is a way to make things better in these challenging times.”