The Mighty Bison: Kent’s New Ecosystem Engineers

Bison are being reintroduced to Kent after a 6,000 year absence; but how exactly is Europe’s largest land mammal going to make a difference? Annabel Mulliner explores how the bison’s natural behaviours will be used to manage Blean Woods sustainably.

Image Credits: Chloe Leis

Despite the best efforts of conservationists, the UK’s key wildlife species have decreased by a massive 60% since the 1970’s. A quarter of the UK’s mammals and almost half of its birds are at risk of extinction according to a report by State of Nature . This is due to the rapid shrinking of their habitats, owing to the intensification of farming as well as pollution from fertiliser, manure and plastic. State of Nature goes as far as to call the UK “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world

However, last month a radical new wilding project was announced in Kent, to the tune of £1.125 million, funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery The project will be managed by both Kent Wildlife Trust, and Wildwood Trust. Named ‘Wilder Blean’, after the woods situated near Canterbury, it hopes to strengthen the local habitat and increase biodiversity by introducing some new species to the area. Enter, the mighty bison.

It’s believed that steppe bison dwelled in the UK about 6,000 years ago, until they became extinct worldwide. The species which will be introduced to Kent are European bison from the Netherlands, which are believed to be a close descendant of the steppe bison. You may be more familiar with the grass-grazing American variety – but European bison, unlike their American counterparts, are adapted to graze on woodland vegetation, owing to their necks being set differently.

The bison’s behaviours will act as a natural method of woodland management, gradually ‘re-wilding’ the area. Kent Wildlife Trust define ‘wilding’ as ‘when nature is given the tools and space it needs to recover itself’ – so, avoiding human invasiveness as much as possible. Bison are ‘ecosystem engineers’, as their natural behaviours can change the environment around them. A more obvious example of an ecosystem engineer would be the beaver: their wood-cutting, dam-building habits can drastically alter their environment. Because of this, they have also been the centre of wilding projects, such as in Arygll, Scotland.

Unlike native grazing animals like cows, bison graze specifically on bark, and rub up against trees to remove their dense winter coat. These behaviours kill off selective trees, while causing others to die back.

Image credits: Philip Brown

This might not sound like ideal behaviour for habitat restoration, but Blean Woods used to be managed commercially for timber production. This means that half of the wood is made up of non-native conifer trees. Past attempts to remove these conifers have involved large machinery, which has been heavily disruptive to local wildlife

The bison will unwittingly carry out this task, cutting costs for Kent Wildlife Trust while also reducing the carbon footprint of the project.

This slow deforestation will create gaps in the woodland canopy as well as deadwood, providing a three-dimensional habitat in which a greater variety of species will be able to thrive. For example, increasing light on the woodland floor encourages plants like cow wheat, which the heath fritillary (a rare butterfly found in Blean Woods) depends on.

Bison are multi-talented; they love a good sand bath , to groom their coat and get rid of insects, which creates dust pits – havens for the eggs of various insects. It’s these behaviours for which the bison has been described as a ‘keystone species which the Blean Woods have lacked up until now..

While this project may seem outlandish, and is certainly the first of its kind in the UK, Kent Wildlife Trust were inspired by similar projects in the Netherlands. Near Haarlem, bison have successfully restored a section of the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, having been reintroduced to the area fifteen years ago.

The bison won’t arrive until Spring 2022, as in the meantime, the team need to prepare the necessary infrastructure, from fences to watering holes. It is hoped that public access will be enhanced through viewing platforms and paths, so that locals will be able to appreciate these wonderful creatures.

Radical approaches like Wilder Blean are crucial if we are to protect the UK’s wildlife from further damage. State of Nature’s 2019 report found that only 44% of woodland is managed sustainably. We can only hope that this attempt at non-invasive woodland management will pave the way for similar innovative projects across the UK.

Image credits: Jonathan Brown

About the Author: Annabel Mulliner is WILD’s Managing Editor and studies English Literature at the University of York.

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