The British Isles were a very different place some 10,000 years ago. For one thing, the land mass was still connected to mainland Europe. The last ice age was ending, and glaciers were receding. And bison may have been roaming—specifically, a now-extinct species known as the steppe bison. (Even farther back, in the Pleistocene, the forest bison likely made its home in Britain.)
Now, for the first time in at least 10 millennia, there are wild bison wandering around the United Kingdom. On Sunday, the conservation organizations Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT) teamed up to release three European Bison into a track of forest known as West Blean Woods. The bison introduction is part of a project called “Wilder Blean,” wherein the partnered charities are trying to “promote stronger habitats by restoring natural processes that are able to withstand the current environmental crisis.”
The bison’s new home is inside a 1,200-acre nature reserve in the southeastern corner of England. Like almost all of the UK, the forest is a degraded habitat, with less biodiversity than it historically held. About half of the area was converted to timber plantations made up of non-native conifer trees prior to the land being purchased by the KWT, according to the conservation organization.
Land managers have been removing the non-native trees and trying to bring the landscape back to a natural state using standard techniques for years. “In the past this has involved chainsaws and large pieces of machinery to remove large areas of trees at a time. This is far from ideal for wildlife,” says Wildwood Trust’s project website.
The hope is that the European bison (the closest living relative of the species that once lived in the British Isles) will fill a critical ecological niche and bring back more biodiversity to the forest via a mechanism less invasive than power tools. As large grazers, bison are ecosystem engineers. Their behavior modifies the habitat around them, creating disturbances like gaps in the forest canopy and microhabitats for a variety of plants and animals to occupy. They also carry seeds around in their fur.
“We want ‘Wilder Blean’ to mark the beginning of a new era for conservation in the UK. We need to revolutionize the way we restore natural landscapes, relying less on human intervention and more on natural engineers like bison, boar and beaver,” said KWT chief executive, Evan Bowen-Jones to the Guardian.
In West Blean, the conservation groups expect the bison will help to take down many of those non-native trees by selectively stripping their bark and will create less-dense corridors through existing vegetation. Plantation forests are very uniform, but natural habitats aren’t at all. Ideally, the bison will bring back some of that heterogeneity.
If everything goes according to plan, the bison could even help the forest absorb and store more carbon dioxide, combatting climate change on a small scale, reports the Guardian. Past research of large grazers has found the animals can boost a habitat’s carbon sequestration.
In the U.S., American bison re-introductions in the Great Plains have helped to boost biodiversity and make grasslands healthier. Wildwood and Kent Trust specifically based their plans on an ongoing European bison project in the Netherlands that’s been running for 15 years, which Wildwood says has “dramatically improved” the habitat there.
The three bison introduced to England yesterday are all females, but they will soon be joined by a bull in August. Park rangers expect the bison to breed and multiply, and the park is allowed to have up to 10 animals on site. However, the bison are not totally free to wander—they’re currently confined to just 12 acres. But that will jump up to 123 acres later in the summer and then more than third of the total park area after that. Unlike in a zoo or other wildlife parks, the bison won’t be given any supplemental food and will just have to graze for themselves.
Ongoing monitoring will track the bison themselves and also their effect on the forest. The forest managers plan to introduce other animals, including a wild boar hybrid known as Iron Age pigs, later on as part of the same project.
The project is centered on forest restoration but is also another chance for the European bison itself, which is globally listed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature . The species was hunted to extinction in the wild but survived in captivity. Through re-introductions across the continent, the bison have made a recovery, according to the IUCN, and now number more than 6,000 in about 47 free-ranging herds.