Bison in Britain

Photo by Jonathan Mast on Unsplash

Apart from deer and semi wild ponies, Britain is not known for having large mammals, but if a new project goes to plan in 2022, European Bison may be added to the list.

Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust are launching a project called Wilder Blean, which will be funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery. The project will take place in Blean Woods, near Herne Bay, which is north of Canterbury in Kent, southeast England. The aim of the project is to promote better habitats by using natural processes. The initial phase will see the release of one male and three female bison.

West Blean woods nature reserve is one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the UK, but because it was previously used for commercial timber, nearly half of the wood is covered in non native conifer trees. Lack of woodland management is one of the eight biggest drivers of species decline in the UK. Wilder Blean hopes that the introduction of a large keystone species such as bison will help return the area to a more natural habitat.

Bison can kill some trees and cause others to die back slowly by eating their bark or rubbing up against them. They also help clear areas when they create dust baths and create corridors through densely vegetated areas. These processes encourage biodiversity by making a more varied habitat. The bison will be joined by other grazing animals including cattle, pigs and ponies. Together they should provide an economical and sustainable way to manage the woods.

The project will also help protect Europe’s largest land mammal. Bison were once common in many European and some Asian countries, but were hunted to extinction by 1927. Luckily there were around 50 captive animals held in zoos, and a breeding project was put in place. In the 1950s a few bison were introduced back into the wild and the next 70 years saw a steady increase in numbers with releases into a number of European countries. Poland and Belarus have the largest populations, but there are also decent numbers in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine.

The small herd in Kent will be allowed to live and breed naturally, so with an average of one calf per female per year, numbers should steadily increase. As there are no natural predators to keep the numbers in check, some animals may have to be moved to other sites in the UK in the future. There are no plans to introduce wolves or big cats into the woods. The animals will not be given any food or artificial shelters, but their health will be monitored. Once the bison are settled, the public will be able to visit the area with rangers.

Habitat loss and the risk of species extinction is usually thought of as a problem in the Amazon rain forest or an African jungle. However, due to urbanisation, pollution, climate change, new agricultural practices and the invasion of non native species, the situation in the UK is just as worrying. According to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN), over 40% of species have seen their numbers decrease since 1970, and 15% are threatened with extinction.

Any ideas which aim to improve habitats and increase biodiversity must be encouraged. The Wilder Blean project is trying a new approach to woodland management (for the UK), but it is based on sound evidence. There are four similar schemes in the Netherlands, one of which has been running for 15 years. It is close to a city and has free public access. The habitat has been significantly improved since the introduction of the bison.

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