A bull has been added to the first wild bison herd to roam British woodland for millennia, in time for the onset of the new year.
The male arrived from Germany and joins three females released in Kent in July as part of a rewilding project entitled Wilder Blean, in forests close to the city of Canterbury. The herd also has a calf, following a surprise birth in September.
The project, which has received online support from Hollywood legend Leonardo DiCaprio, is a collaboration between the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust.
The hope is that the bison herd will act as ‘ecosystem engineers’ to transform a formerly cultivated pine wood plantation into natural forest.
The bison’s taste for tree bark kills intrusive trees while their passage around the woods opens up trails, letting light onto the ground to promote vegetation growth while their love of rolling around in dust creates more open ground for new plants, invertebrates and birds.
The bison herd will also create a more climate resilient landscape by naturally felling trees to ensure the woodland moves away from being a pine-based monoculture. This will help wetter areas to store carbon and reduce flood risks.
The bull took three hours to leave the transporter, when it arrived at the forest in rainy conditions and after the animal’s sedation during the journey.
Staff at Wildwood said it was possibly the sight of the females which finally tempted the bull out into its new home. The herd then nuzzled and ate together for a while, before retreating into the woodland.
Mark Habben of the Wildwood Trust said: ‘The arrival of the bull marks the start of the Wilder Blean journey in earnest and it’s incredibly fitting that it coincides with a new year. I feel a bit emotional to be honest, it’s been such a long time in the making.’
‘It’s been incredible to see our vision come to life this year and to witness huge milestones such as the herd taking their first steps into the woods and the unexpected, but very welcome, arrival of the calf.’
The herd is expected to breed and allow the creation of other such groups in the UK, as well as exchanging animals across Europe to increase genetic diversity.
The female bison were originally released into a five-hectare enclosure, so their health could be closely monitored while they adapted to their new home. In November, they were given access to a 50-hectare area.
Bison Ranger Donovan Wright was on hand to capture the moment that the herd made their first steps into the area, later saying: ‘It was an incredible moment, the matriarch led the younger females into their new home, making a beeline for the sweet chestnut trees and tucking in right away.’
The animals will be released into the full 200-hectare site in the coming summer, with plans to build tunnels under public footpaths that cross the area, in order to allow them to move freely.
Now the bison are in the wider woodland, visitors are more likely to see them when walking the trails around the Blean or from a bespoke platform at Wildwood. The chances of seeing them are very small, however if people are patient, still, quiet and very lucky, it is a possibility. To adhere to UK legislation, two fences will separate the herd from the public at all times.
Stan Smith of the Kent Wildlife Trust said: ‘We want to demonstrate that a hands-off, nature-based solution exists to combat the climate and biodiversity crises we face, and intend that the Wilder Blean Project will become a blueprint for other organisations to take forward.’
Next year, the bison will be joined by other keystone species when long-horn cattle, Exmoor ponies and iron-age pigs will be released into the area. They will all have their own unique natural impact on the woodland, which will help fight the biodiversity crisis.