On Monday morning, three wildebeests were released in the village of Kent, Britain. They are the first wild bison to roam Britain for thousands of years. The objective is to transform the dense pine forest into a vibrant natural forest where the natural behavior of the animals is present.
The taste of their bark can kill some trees in a pine forest and their size opens up pathways and allows light to fall on the forest floor. Their willingness to roll in dust baths allows for more open ground. All this allows new plants, insects, lizards, birds and bats to grow. The Wilder Plain project is an experiment to see how well bison can act as natural “eco-engineers” and restore wildlife. The United Kingdom is one of the poorest natural countries in the world.
The European bison is the continent’s largest land animal and became extinct in the wild a century ago. But thanks to reintroduction programs across Europe, gentle giants are on the rise. “Restoring naturally functioning ecosystems is an important and cost-effective means of tackling the climate crisis,” said Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO of Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT). “We want Wilder Plain to be the start of a new era of conservation in the UK. We rely less on human intervention and more on natural engineers such as bison, wild boar and otters.
Paul Whitfield, director of the Wildwood Trust, said: “We’ve been giving people in England the chance to experience wild birds in the wild for over a thousand years. It’s a powerful, emotional experience and it’s something we’ve lost in this country.”
The three bison are an older female from Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland, who will be the mother of the herd, and two young females from Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, Ireland. “We couldn’t have asked for a better matriarch,” said Donovan Wright, one of two new buffalo rangers working on the project. “She’s very calm and very confident.” The rangers spent some time at the Gransvlach project in the Netherlands, where you can walk through an area already occupied by 14 bison. Never happened.
In mid-August, a young bull will be added from Germany, whose arrival has been delayed by import problems due to Brexit. The three women were given collars on Sunday, which the team can use to map the animals’ movements. At first there will be five acres of double fenced areas for testing females, but this will increase to 50 acres when the bull arrives. Eventually, the animals will approach 200 hectares. Visitors to Plain Woods can see bison from the trails, the group said.
Bison-sized tunnels are also being built to allow the animals to safely cross the existing footpaths. They are surrounded by two gates, one of which is electric. Bison on other British game reserves are kept in small areas and supplemented with feed.
The bison soon joined other grazing animals, ponies, Iron Age pigs and longhorn cattle, complementing the bison in its natural behavior of managing the landscape. Their long-term impact will be closely monitored. This includes taking soil samples and counting worms, surveying vegetation and monitoring invertebrates such as birds and mammals.
The rangers expect the bison to breed and the females to produce one calf per year. The Wilder Plain area is licensed for up to 10 animals. They hope to be able to establish other areas in the UK in the future and supply bison to exchange animals across Europe. All 7,000 bison living in Europe come from just 12 zoo animals. The species is still classified as vulnerable, so increasing genetic diversity is critical.
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