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The bison are back: getting to know the UK’s first-ever bison rangers at their inaugural rewilding project in Kent

Bison last roamed wild in the UK more than 6,000 years ago, but in a pioneering rewilding project, four have been reintroduced to Blean Woods Nature Reserve in Kent

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 27 Jul 2022, 06:03 BST
Bison at the Wildwood Trust

Bison at the Wildwood Trust.

Photograph by Tom Cawdron

You’re the UK’s first ever bison rangers. How did you get into conservation?

Don: I grew up in Australia, watching David Attenborough and catching insects and snakes and hiding them under my pillow. I got into conservation chasing a dream, and I’ve spent the last 10 years as a ranger in southern Africa, working with large animals like elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo. It’s a tremendous privilege to be a part of Blean.

Tom: I’ve worked on some amazing sites throughout Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, and in a beautiful array of habitats from wetlands and ancient woodland to lowland heathland. I’m a real tree hugger, and ever since I was a kid I was drawn to forests. Bison were, of course, a huge draw to the job, but working in one of the largest remnants of ancient woodland in the UK is really special.

So, what does the project entail exactly?

Tom: Essentially, we’re introducing four wild bison to Blean Woods, five miles outside of Canterbury. The original herd consists of one matriarchal female from Scotland who’ll be the leader, deciding where they go, when they feed, where they ruminate and so on — basically, she’s the boss. Then we’ve got two younger females or cows from Ireland and, finally, a bull from Germany to complete the set.

What are bison like and what’s their role at Blean?

Tom: Bison are very docile, gentle creatures, and for animals that are so big, they’re very light afoot. If they don’t want to be found, they’re adept at disappearing into the woods and into the shadows. Temperament-wise, each individual will be different, so you might have one in the group who’s a bit more confident and pushes boundaries, but generally speaking they keep themselves to themselves.

In terms of their role, bison are eco-system engineers. As soon as they’re confident and comfortable, we expect them to head off and explore new areas, moving through thick, dense plant life. Whereas cattle and ponies might come up against a wall of vegetation and go around it, because of their build, bison will just punch straight through it. This opens up areas that were previously impenetrable and unwelcoming to a lot of important flora and fauna, connecting pockets of fragmented habitats and creating a wonderful mosaic of nature.

Can we expect any baby bison anytime soon?

Tom: Absolutely, we hope that we will start to see little ones fairly soon. The acclimatising period is the defining factor, but as long as they have enough food and space, which we’re confident they do, they’ll hopefully breed next year. That moment is going to be very special. Recently bison have been taken up to threatened status, and we want to contribute to the European-wide drive to safeguard their future, plus they will be the first native bison to Kent! It’ll be amazing to see how each generation will shape Blean for the better.

Why is this project important in a wider sense?

Don: Lack of woodland management is one of the biggest drivers of species decline in the UK. We’re losing species at the fastest rate in decades, so our conservation efforts have never been more important. Finding nature-based solutions to kickstart these natural processes is key, and while the stats are deeply concerning now, we’ve also witnessed nature’s incredible ability to heal.

It’s also important that we connect society back to nature and wild spaces. In the UK there’s a big disconnect with what we deem to be wild and what actually is. If we go for a walk in the countryside, for example, it’s very unlikely we’ll come across large, free-roaming herbivores that help shape the environment in a positive way. A big part of what we’re hoping to achieve with the project is getting people inspired by nature, and aware of what a wild space really should look like.

Are you optimistic about the future of rewilding in the UK?

Don: I see a lot of caring, not only with this project, but across the UK. There are so many exciting projects on the go, and I do believe that we’re on the brink of a breakthrough. This project has become a shooting star for wilding at the moment, and people are realising more and more, just how important nature is.

Can we visit Blean and see the bison for ourselves?

Don: We can’t wait to share it with everyone! There’s a fantastic set of public footpaths, and lots of lovely information boards dotted around the site. We’re also there to take people on walking trips, where you’ll be able to see the bison behaving naturally in the wild.

For more information on Blean and how to visit, visit the Kent Wildlife Trust.

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