Wild Bison to Roam Britain for First Time in Thousands of Years

A small herd of four European bison will be released into a woodland in southeastern England in spring 2022

European bison
A European bison in the Netherlands, which has also sought to reintroduce the herbivores. Evan Bowen-Jones

After thousands of years, a herd of wild bison will be reintroduced to a nature preserve in the United Kingdom in spring of 2022, reports Damian Carrington of the Guardian.

The reintroduction will take place in a 2,500-acre area called Blean Woods in southeast England near Canterbury, according to a release. The $1.4 million “Wilder Blean” project, led by the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust, will release a group of four European bison (Bison bonasus) into the woodland in hopes of restoring some of the ecosystem’s lost diversity, reports BBC News.

Britain’s new wild bison herd will include one male and three females, per the Guardian. The group, which will be brought in from the Netherlands or Poland, is expected to produce about one calf per female each year.

The hope of those behind the project is that reintroducing the grazers, which can weigh up to a ton, will result in a thriving mosaic of different habitat types. This predicted biodiversity boon is likely to occur because the bison are what ecologists call ecosystem engineers. Similar to dam-building beavers, for example, bison shape the natural environment they inhabit.

Apart from munching grass, bison can create openings in woodlands by knocking down small trees, which intersperses the habitat with open, light-flooded patches. These patches of sunlight can ultimately allow a wider array of plants and animals to flourish, per BBC News. Specifically, BBC News mentions that the openings created by bison could allow plants such as cow wheat to grow, adding that a rare butterfly called the heath fritillary depends on the plant.

“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,” says Paul Hadaway, the director of conservation at the Kent Wildlife Trust, in a statement. “Using missing keystone species like bison to restore natural processes to habitats is the key to creating bio-abundance in our landscape.”

According to the Guardian, an extinct bison known as the steppe bison (Bison priscus) roamed ancient Britain’s countryside until roughly 6,000 years ago. Other sources suggest the species’ global extinction occurred around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago following the end of the most recent Ice Age.

Along with the American bison (Bison bison), the European bison is the closest living relative to those ancient beasts. However, the European bison may have never inhabited the British Isles, opening the possibility that, in a strict sense, this reintroduction is in fact an introduction.

Native or not, the project’s leaders hope that establishing a new herd of European bison in England will fill a vacant ecological role while boosting the endangered ungulate’s prospects for survival.

The bison set to be released into Blean Woods are all descended from a herd of just 12 that just over 100 years ago represented the last remaining vestiges of their species. After the close of World War I, the European bison had nearly been eradicated by hunting and habitat loss, but captive breeding programs have built the species back up to a still-fragile population of roughly 5,000.

Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Moss lists beavers, white storks, white-tailed eagles and pine marten as examples of species that have also recently been reintroduced to England. Such reintroductions seek to replenish the island’s dwindling wildlife. The U.K. is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, according to the Guardian. A 2019 report indicated that 41 percent of all species studied have declined since 1970, and that “priority species” declined by roughly 60 percent during the same period.

But Moss notes that this new move to add large grazers back into Britain begs the ecological question of whether the country’s lost predators might one day be reintroduced as well. Wolves, lynx and brown bear once patrolled the British Isles, keeping herbivore populations in check as they do in continental Europe.

The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett tells the Guardian that his organization sees the reintroductions of species such as the bison as key parts of an ambitious plan for conservation.

“If we accept that our environment is in desperate trouble, which it is, then we must act now. Time is running out, so letting nature help us, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, makes sense. That could mean the introduction of keystone species, apex predators, ecosystem engineers and so on,” Bennett tells the Guardian. “Our aim is to see 30 percent of this country’s land and sea dedicated to nature by 2030.”

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