Bison to be introduced into UK woodland
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Six millennia ago, the human race had just invented Bronze and the written word. The world’s population was roughly the same – or slightly less – than the current British population. And the demise of wild European bison had already begun.
Scientists believe the period marked a major shift in the shaping of the natural habitat, caused by human beings.
It is not clear exactly when wild bison were no longer extant in the British Isles, but by the Middle Ages, their roaming area had been reduced to a region of forest that borders modern-day Poland and Belarus.
Thanks to their hunting by German soldiers in World War I, wild bison all but disappeared. Two were reintroduced into the wild in Europe in 1929, and there were around a hundred by 1964.
However, it was only earlier this year that three bison were brought back to a part of Kent that would have served as their natural territory thousands of years ago.
One came from Scotland and the other two from Ireland, and were released into West Blean and Thorden Woods, near Canterbury, by the Wilder Blean Project, a joint initiative between Kent Wildlife and Wildwood Trusts.
On September 9, one of the ancient, 80-stone beasts, from Ireland, gave birth to a calf – the first wild bison to be born in Britain for at least 6,000 years.
The birth of what was once Europe’s largest mammal came as a surprise to the rangers tasked with caring for the fledgling herd.
Tom Gibbs, one of the rangers, told the Mirror: “It is difficult to detect pregnancy in bison as they naturally conceal it to avoid being hunted by predators.
“In the weeks leading up to the birth, while the other two would either be eating, digesting or just taking in their surroundings, she would always be eating. We thought: ‘ok, she loves her food’, but she was eating for two.”
As well as reintroducing the species to Britain’s wilderness, the bison are intended to provide a natural stimulus to the surrounding ecosystem, by grazing, trampling and eating bark off trees. Seeds also stick to their fur, cross-pollenating vegetation in a wider range.
Mr Gibbs commented: “The debarking helps more light reach the forest floor, helping grasslands, butterflies, insects, and reptiles thrive.”
He added: “The beauty of bison is that they’re not doing anything special – they are just being themselves.”
The wild bison are estimated to eat around 25kg of bark and brambles a day in their 12-acre woodland – which is due to be expanded to 600 acres, or 120 percent of the area of Monaco, as the herd expands.
Mr Gibbs used wild heather as a “perfect example” of the animals’ use, explaining: “Heather grows under trees, but it’s too shady to really thrive, so it gets very spindly and unhealthy.
“But as the trees are debarked and killed off, nice, open patches are created that allow the sun to pour through.
“The heather has responded really well and started to grow in the absence of tree cover. And heather is a great source of nectar for bees.”
Naming the bison is “a big no-no” as they are supposed to be considered wild, but they are trackable via a GPS collar – and there are hopes to create tunnels that would allow members of the public to catch a glimpse of them.
There are currently two male bison kept in captivity nearby, but the wild females will get a male mating partner from Germany in a matter of weeks, according to the paper.
And the rewilding of old species is not expected to stop there: the free-roaming bison will be joined by Exmoor ponies, long-horn cattle and Iron Age pigs – the latter of which being a pig-boar hybrid intended to replicate the ancient animal.
The Wilder Blean project has benefited from over £1million funding from the Postcode Lottery, and the organisers hope it will inspire other, similar projects across the British Isles.
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