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Wild bison return to UK for first time in thousands of years

Early on Monday morning, three gentle giants wandered out of a corral in the Kent countryside to become the first wild bison to roam in Britain for thousands of years.

The aim is for the animals’ natural behaviour to transform a dense commercial pine forest into a vibrant natural woodland. Their taste for bark will kill some trees and their bulk will open up trails, letting light spill on to the forest floor, while their love of rolling around in dust baths will create more open ground. All this should allow new plants, insects, lizards, birds and bats to thrive.

The Wilder Blean project, near Canterbury, is an experiment to see how well the bison can act as natural “ecosystem engineers” and restore wildlife. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

A more natural woodland should also absorb more carbon, helping to tackle the climate crisis. Global heating was evident as the bison were released, with England in the grip of a heatwave, and the early timing was to allow the bison to reach the shade of the woods before temperatures started to climb.

Bisons are released in Blean Woods, Kent
Bisons are released in Blean Woods, Kent Photograph: Alexander Turner/The Guardian

European bison are the continent’s largest land animal – bulls can weigh a tonne – and were extinct in the wild a century ago, but are recovering through reintroduction projects across Europe.

“The restoration of naturally functioning ecosystems is a vital and inexpensive tool in tackling the climate crisis,” said Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO at Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT). “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.”

Paul Whitfield, director general of Wildwood Trust, said: “Not only this, but we’re 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 coming from wildlife parks where they have more human interaction and less space to roam freely: an older female from the Highland wildlife park in Scotland, which will be the matriarch of the herd, plus two young females from Fota wildlife park in Cork, Ireland.

“We could not 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 by a young bull from Germany in mid-August, whose arrival was delayed by import complications related to Brexit.

Bison in Blean Woods
Bison in Blean Woods Photograph: Alexander Turner/The Guardian

The three females were fitted with tracking collars on Sunday, an approach that will allow the team to plot the animals’ movements and glean insights into the plants they interact with. Wright said bison are like giant seed banks. “As they move, they collect seeds, and then they [are] also dispersing seeds along the route.”

At first the females will have a five-hectare double fenced area 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 might be able to catch a glimpse of the bison from trails, the team said.

Bison-sized tunnels are also being built to allow the animals to safely cross existing footpaths. They are contained by two fences, one of which is electric. The bison in other UK wildlife parks are contained in smaller areas and receive supplementary feeding.

“I cannot wait to see how the bison start to shape the Blean over a five-, 10-, 20-year period as they settle into their new home and start throwing their weight around,” said Tom Gibbs, the other bison ranger.

The rangers have spent time at the Kraansvlak project in the Netherlands, where people can now walk freely through 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 behaviours complement the bison in managing the landscape without the need for human intervention. Their impact will be closely watched over the long term, including soil sampling and worm counts, examining the vegetation structure and monitoring invertebrates, birds and mammals.

“If we can create diverse, dynamic, bio-abundant habitats in our crowded corner of the south-east, why shouldn’t we be doing it in our national parks and protected landscapes?” said Paul Hadaway, director of conservation at Kent Wildlife Trust.

The 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 future, they hope to provide bison to found other sites in the UK, as well as exchanging animals across Europe.

All 7,000 bison living in Europe are descended from just 12 zoo animals, and the species is still classed as near threatened, so maximising genetic diversity is very important. The £1.1m project was funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery.

• This article was amended on 18 July 2022 to provide more detail about the distinction between European bison kept in wildlife parks and those roaming wild. Also, the species is classed as near threatened, not vulnerable as stated in an earlier version.

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