Wild bison are roaming the UK for the first time in thousands of years after being released into a rewilding project.
Three European bison took their first steps into West Blean and Thornden Woods in Kent on Monday morning as part of an initiative to restore ecosystems which can tackle the biodiversity and climate crises.
Bison are known as ‘keystone species’ and ‘ecosystem engineers’ according to Kent Wildlife Trust and ecologists hope their reintroduction will trigger a ripple effect of habitat creation and biodiversity restoration.
Bison display particular traits, some common to livestock like grazing, and some not so common, and this is why ecologists are excited to test the impacts of their reintroduction.
They take dust baths and create deadwood through knocking down trees, and this can help to create biodiverse habitats within woodlands and attract new species.
“Bison have a unique ecology like no other animal,” said Kent Wildlife Trust ecologist, Kora Kunzmann. “They create standing deadwood through their natural behaviour and this creates space for invertebrates, brings light to the forest floor and encourages native species to grow.”
“Another unique behaviour of the bison is to roll around in a sand pit, creating a dust bath which is valuable for burrowing insects and invertebrates,” Kunzmann added.
These characteristics will help transform the woodland from a predominate monoculture of non-native trees, to a rich, multi species habitat that can help tackle the twin crises of biodiversity and climate, the trust said.
“They will create an explosion of biodiversity and build habitat resilience; locking in carbon to help reduce global temperature rise,” said director general of Wildwood Trust Paul Whitfield.
The public can admire the bison in the flesh as West Blean and Thornden Woods in Kent is open to visitors.
“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,” Whitfield added.
The project is experimenting with three different approaches to rewilding to test and compare the impacts of the bison in contributing to nature restoration.
“The first treatment area sees bison grazing alongside Exmoor ponies and iron age pigs, the second contains the long-horn cattle with the pigs and ponies and the third is our control zone which will contain no grazing animals,” said Kunzmann.
This will allow researchers to clearly compare the impacts of the bison on nature compared to grazing animals, and no grazing animals.
However, the reintroduction of the near extinct species has reignited the farming versus rewilding debate. Farmers have suggested that it was a PR exercise and that traditional and native livestock breeds could have similar ecological benefits.
“I had this conversation with the team on the project when they first announced the bison a couple of years ago,” said regenerative livestock farmer Nikki Yoxall on Twitter. “Everything the bison do, my Shetland cattle do.”
“There’s a significant call for the removal of livestock within our food system because of the climate impact of methane,” Yoxall told Wicked Leeks. “Someone said it; bison equals good methane and cattle equal bad methane.
“There’s this excitement that comes from conservation and rewilding spectrum seeing some bison but can’t appreciate the benefits that wilder farming can bring.
“It just feels like a double standard,” Yoxall added.
Others commented that this comes down to money, as the novel bison can attract much needed funding and grants.
Meanwhile, journalist George Monbiot celebrated the return of the bison and added that conservation projects should now push for the reintroduction of lnyx and wolves.
Do you welcome the return of long-lost species such as bison and beavers, or is it a nostalgic fantasy? Let us know in the comments.
More on rewilding:
• Dam it: Meet nature’s engineers
• Where the wild things could be
• George Monbiot: Fighting for nature