Blean bison project
It’s ‘Blean’ a year and a half since bison made history in the UK.
Newborn bison calves, dung beetles, and possible evidence of bison self-medicating are just a few of the wonders that have been revealed!
On 18th July 2022, as the temperature soared past 40 degrees and under the glare of an international media spotlight, three European bison took their first tentative steps into an ancient Canterbury woodland.
The three bison were the first to freely roam in the UK in thousands of years. They’ve been released into the woodland in a joint effort between Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust as part of the Blean bison project, a ground-breaking wilding initiative using large herbivores to reshape the landscape to combat the nature crisis and make the area more resilient to climate change.
The early days
The founding herd consisted of an 18-year-old matriarch from Scotland and two younger females from Ireland. The anticipated arrival of a bull from Germany was delayed due to post-Brexit animal import complications, meaning that the females began to explore the woodland as a trio.
Within hours of the release, changes in the landscape began to take place, right in front of the Director of Wildwood Trust, Paul Whitfield as he observed the matriarch making a beeline for Rhododendron. He said: “The matriarch dived into a thicket of Rhododendron, which is an invasive species and circled her head in a figure of eight motion. She emerged from the bushes with a crown of the plant attached to her horns.
“It was an exceptionally hot day, and the animals were being pestered by flies. After discussion with the Bison Rangers, we concluded she may have been attempting to use the oils in the plant as an insect repellent, which if correct, is fascinating.”
The herd immediately set to work in the woods, and within weeks, they had trampled brambles, thrashed and stomped the Rhododendron, and de-barked willow trees. Corridors began to open through the woodland and light started to reach the forest floor.
Bison ranger Donovan Wright photographed fungi growing from the bison’s dung and was excited to see dung beetle larvae in the droppings, he said: “Whilst we anticipated changes, no-one expected to see them so quickly. Within weeks we had dung beetle larvae in the bison’s droppings – how the dung beetles got the memo that there were bison in the Blean that quickly, I will never know.”
Within six weeks, another potentially exciting discovery was made by the Blean bison team following a phone call with the scientists analysing the bison’s dung. Donovan Wright continued: “We had a phone call from the lab, asking if bison self-medicate. When the matriarch arrived, she had a number of parasites in her droppings. However, after a few weeks, that number dropped significantly. Tom and I went back through our notes and we had both recorded that we had observed the matriarch eating Yew, which contains toxins, so perhaps she was self-medicating to rid herself of the parasites.”
A welcome surprise
As the herd became accustomed to the woodland and summer faded into autumn, a surprise
awaited bison rangers Don and Tom. Under the cover of darkness, in early September, one of the young females had slipped into dense woodland and had become detached from the herd.
The females had stuck together from day one, and Tom decided to track the lone bison to conduct a welfare check. He said: “I tracked the young female to a quiet corner of the woodland and was relieved to find her apparently well and eating some vegetation. As I came closer, I had to double-take as a little head popped out from behind her and I quickly realised she had given birth. My heart was racing, and I stepped back and spent some time observing them.
“It was a surprise, though we had an inkling that something was different about her. She had the healthiest appetite of the herd and appeared heavier than the other young female and her udders were swollen.”
“The question we get asked all the time is ‘How did you not know?’ and whilst it was something we had discussed; bison conceal their pregnancies very well as a defense mechanism to revent being targeted by predators. She also gave birth well outside of the breeding season. However, despite all this, it was a historic moment. The first wild bison calf born in the UK!”
The moment was celebrated by the nation, even capturing the attention of Hollywood legend Leonardo DiCaprio who posted the news on his social media channels.
Ranger Don even managed to capture some stunning photographs and videos of the calf and her mum which were shared globally by news outlets, he said: “This is an incredibly important moment, this bison will only ever know West Blean and Thornden Woods; she will learn where all of the best places are to feed, drink and dust-bathe – she is the future of conservation in the UK.”
The family is completed in time for Christmas
On 23rd December, in torrential rain and in stark contrast to July when the Blean bison team struggled to keep cool in the sweltering heat, the herd was about to become complete.
The bull, from Germany, had finally made his way to Kent. His arrival was testament to hours of work by staff at Wildwood Trust, who had navigated a series of complex import challenges in a post-Brexit situation, to get the bison across the channel. The bull is genetically important with a bloodline that could be traced to the founding 12 bison herd that brought the species back from the brink of extinction shortly after the first world war.
However, the biggest challenge was yet to face the team, as freezing temperatures and a deluge of rain were discouraging the bull from leaving the warm refuge of the trailer. However, thanks to the experience of the Director of Zoological Operations for Wildwood Trust, Mark Habben, the introduction proceeded. Mark said: “Bison live as a herd and we knew that if the bull knew the herd was nearby, he would be keen to join them so the rangers used their skills to encourage the females up to the corral area, where the bull was enjoying the warmth of the trailer, and within moments of catching their scent in the air he was on his feet. The bison took a moment to get to know each other before calmly making their way back into the woodland.”
The grazing assemblage arrives!
Throughout the winter the herd began to bond and explore more of the woodland. In March, the woodland was ready to receive the final assemblage of wilder grazing animals with the release of Iron-Age pigs, Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies.
Unlike the bison, these animals are not constrained by legislation and roam within the public areas of West Blean and Thornden Woods, often delighting visitors with their presence. They have been chosen for their ability to transform the woodland as a nature-based solution to woodland management, with the pigs rootling and churning up soil which encourages plants to grow and the cattle and ponies eating the thicker vegetation.
In time, some of the ponies will be introduced into the bison area and the pigs will roam between the wider woodland and the 200 hectares in which the bison live.
Director of Conservation for Kent Wildlife Trust Paul Hadaway said: “The impacts of the grazers will be closely observed as part of one of the largest monitoring programmes of its kind in the UK. With three treatment areas, research will establish how the bison impact the woodland differently to the other grazing areas.
“The first treatment area comprises of bison, ponies and pigs, the second longhorn cattle, ponies and pigs and the third will continue to be managed by traditional methods of coppicing and felling. The research results will be published at intervals throughout the monitoring programme.”
A new calf arrives!
In December 2023, in what can aptly be described as “the best Christmas present,” a new bison calf was born. This is the second calf and a significant milestone in the successful journey of our Blean bison project.
The latest arrival and sixth member of the herd is the first to have been conceived and born in the woodland from the specially selected founding herd.
The next chapter
At present, the bison are roaming within 50 hectares of the woodland, with a further 150 hectares set aside for their use. Dangerous wild animal legislation means that the herd cannot share the same space as the public and with footpaths crisscrossing the blean complex this poses a challenge for the Wilder Blean team. The answer – bison bridges which connect the landscape whilst also giving people the opportunity to see the herd as they make their way through the woodland.
With planning permission now granted the project is seeking sponsorship for the structures, taking steps towards completing the next milestone of the journey.
Paul Hadaway said: “The dangerous wild animal legislation posed a problem as to how we can allow the public to access the site whilst also giving the bison the opportunity to freely choose where they graze.
“We did not want to re-route the public rights of way, community engagement is one of the fundamental objectives of the project, so taking away the public’s opportunity to see the bison was not an option.
“The bridges provide a natural way for the bison to roam whilst also giving people viewing opportunities.”
The team also continues to work with MPs and other government bodies like Defra to advocate for change in legislation and make the Dangerous Wild Animal Act fit for purpose and not a barrier to wilding initiatives. It is hoped that others can follow the footsteps of the Wilder Blean Project and connect our landscapes for wildlife, using nature-based solutions to create a better future for our planet.
How can you help?
Please support the growing herd and the Blean bison project.
By supporting this pioneering wilding initiative, you can help us provide the best possible environment for Kent’s youngest ecosystem engineer, because if nature thrives, we do too.
What is the Blean bison project?
Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust are launching a flagship wilding project, ‘Blean bison' in Blean woods near Canterbury. The project will promote stronger habitats by restoring natural processes that are able to withstand the current environmental crisis and species decline, and in the long run, reverse it.
In the UK, lack of woodland management is one of the eight biggest drivers of species decline. Wilder Blean aims to bring transformational change through a controlled trial with bison; a missing keystone species that is able to naturally manage woodlands.
A key part of this project will be extensive consultation and engagement with local landowners, interest groups and residents who know and love this area.
Although European bison were never native to the UK, Steppe Bison and other wild grazing animals once were. European bison are now our best chance at recreating those grazing behaviours that once existed. Despite their size, bison are peaceful animals whose ability to fell trees by rubbing up against them and eating the bark, gives space for other plants and animals to thrive. Bison will be accompanied by other grazing animals to create the greatest plant and animal diversity possible.
Where is it?
The project will take place in part of the West Blean woods nature reserve, which is in one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the UK.
The wood is ever-changing and has an ancient droveway through it that is almost a thousand years old. Before Kent Wildlife Trust bought the wood, it was managed commercially for timber production, which is why almost half of the wood is covered in plantations of non-native conifer trees.
Why did we embark on this project?
In the UK, we’re headed for increasing species extinctions in the next 10 years. We know that the key to enabling species to survive and thrive is to create a nature recovery network, of bigger, better quality, and more joined up habitats
Species in the UK are declining at their fastest rate for thousands of years according to the latest State of Nature report and unfortunately human management alone is not enough to create the kinds of habitats species need.
What we need are natural solutions and this is why we have taken this first step to drive ‘Wilding’ at Wildwood Trust and in collaboration with Kent Wildlife Trust across some of their sites in Kent. Wilding is when nature is given the tools and space it needs to recover itself and has the potential to increase abundance of biodiversity to levels beyond what human management achieves and helps store carbon.