Wild bison, absent from the United Kingdom for thousands of years, are being reintroduced to a forest near Canterbury, England to help restore the woods to their natural state.
The Wilder Blean project, a partnership of Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust, is returning bison to the West Blean and Thornden Woods, a forest dominated by just a few species, namely pines from commercial tree plantations dating back to the 1970s. The bison will knock down trees and trample over shrubs, creating space for new plants to take hold. A greater diversity of flora will attract new insects, birds, and reptiles, and will also help the woods store more carbon, conservationists say.
“With this project, we’re going to prove the impact bison in the wild can have on the environment,” Paul Whitfield, director general of Wildwood Trust, said in a statement. “Not only this, but we’re giving people in the UK — for the first time in over a thousand years — the chance to experience bison in the wild.”
European bison, which can grow to more than six feet tall and weigh more than a ton, were once common across much of the continent. The beasts were driven to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century, and have since been slowly reintroduced to the wild, primarily in Eastern Europe. While European bison never inhabited the British Isles, they are descended from ancient steppe bison, which were last seen in Britain near the end of the last ice age.
A recent study found that reintroducing just 20 large mammal species, including European bison, to areas where they were lost could boost biodiversity and draw down carbon worldwide. Scientists estimate that European bison could help restore more than 180,000 square miles of habitat.
In addition to bringing back wild bison, the Wilder Blean project next aims to reintroduce ponies, Iron Age pigs, and Longhorn cattle to the West Blean and Thornden Woods. Much like the bison, these creatures are expected to help manage the landscape.
“We want Wilder Blean to mark the beginning of a new era for conservation in the UK,” Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO at Kent Wildlife Trust, said in a statement. “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.”