? If you go down to the woods today… ?

European Bison to be reintroduced into West Blean Woods

Wanted: Bison rangers for Rewilding project. The UK’s first ever job advert for two Bison rangers has seen many applicants keen to get involved with this exciting new project.

Funding and plans have been progressing with Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust to bring the first ever European Bison into the UK. This unique ‘rewilding’ conservation task seeks to diversify the UKs ecosystems.

Europe’s largest land mammal will be introduced to an area in the West Blean Woods near Canterbury, Kent. This will be a secured section to allow the rangers to monitor how bison will change the UK grazing system.

Picture courtesy of Wildwood Trust

The job posting asks for candidates who have extensive experience and excellent knowledge of the management of cattle and livestock. But the trust will provide training at a site in the Netherlands to allow the successful applicants to learn the necessary skills specific to European Bison.

“Rewilding areas, getting areas back into nature and making those areas more biodiverse, complex and resilient is what is going to save us from climate change,” said Paul Whitfield, Director General of Wildwood Trust. “This will reduce the impact of climate change and these areas hold a huge amount of carbon. This is really important and we should be really ramping up our efforts at the moment, not putting them on hold.”

Left: courtesy of Wildwood Trust

Wildwood Trust, like many conservation charities has faced huge financial losses since the pandemic with at least half a million pounds worth of losses so far.  The funding for the Bison conservation was provided by the People’s Postcode Lottery just before the pandemic struck.

What are European Bison?

The European Bison are from the cattle family. They are large herbivores and, like the UK cattle, they eat grass but also a range of plants, flowers and tree bark.

They became extinct in the wild in Europe in the 1920s and there were only around 50 left in captivity.

This led to a large scale attempt across Europe to save the species and eventually reintroduce them into the wild. This was very successful, the latest figures from 2019 show there are now around 7500 European Bison worldwide with half of those living in Poland and Belarus.

The European Bison are different to the cattle currently in the UK. They provide natural forest management by the unique way they interact with the woodland. They are known as ‘habitat engineers.’

How does this ‘rewild’ our habitat?

When Bison are itchy – they rub up against trees which wears away at the bark and results in the trees dying.

As dead trees fall, an open space is created which provides another type of habitat. Butterflies, deer and birds prosper in these pockets of sunlight. The rotting wood also provides the perfect conditions for certain fungi and as it degrades it enriches the soil.

These heavy land mammals also eat away at the bark on trees which naturally fells the trees. When they shed their winter coat they use the trees to rub away their excess fur.

This type of tree felling would normally be carried out by man-made machinery in the UK but many areas miss out entirely on this type of land management.

The Wilder Blean project believe the Bison are the best chance to restore these functions back into the UK ecosystem in a natural manner. This will rebuild some of the biodiversity that has been lost over the years.

In Ashford, Kent there was a similar scheme introduce by Kent Wildlife Trust and Ashford Borough Council in 2016 when Highland cattle were introduced into The Warren.

These Highland cattle were needed to restore open clearings that had been overwhelmed by brambles and nettles. They were previously home to wild flowers and insects which supported the ecosystems of many animals.

This herd grazes in areas where other cows cannot and remove unwanted and invasive plants. This process restores and maintains the open spaces to allow other animals and plants to return to The Warren.

Much like these Highland cattle, it is hoped that the European Bison will offer a missing ecological process that no other animal in the UK can.

CoVID impacts funding

Environmentalists argue that these conservation projects are crucial in diversifying the UK landscape but funding in this area has been hugely impacted by the current pandemic.

Sandwich Wildlife Park, has been a recent victim of local Covid closures. Managing Director Tony Binskin said: “This is not the end of our story, it’s just us closing a chapter which we can just sadly no longer continue to support permanently.” , Wingham Wildlife Park, the larger site, is not affected by the closure.

Wildwood Trust is currently facing delays of at least a year for the rest of its conservation schemes. One of these is the first Wildcat release outside Scotland since the 19th century, simply because there is no funding available.

The trust is hoping it will be allowed to reopen for Easter, as this is the busiest time of the year for the charity. It has been heavily reliant on public donations and memberships to keep the reserve running – people have been “incredibly generous” with their donations.

The UK government set up a Zoo Animals Fund last August which promised £100 million to help animal reserves. But Paul Whitfield explains that it have been unable to access this fund due to the restrictive eligibility criteria.