The first bison in the UK
The advantages and disadvantages of reintroduction will have been very much have been weighed up in a quaint woodland in Kent recently, which became the home of a brand new animal, potentially never before seen in the UK. Julia Ravey speaks to Stan Smith from Kent Wildlife Trust…
Julia - <Camera Shutter Clicks> No, we're not on the red carpet at a Hollywood movie premiere. That is what it sounds like. Those clacks of camera shutters are capturing the moment bison were released in the UK for the very first time Stan Smith from The Wildlife Trust in Kent, explain to me how these animals can drastically impact our ecosystems.
Stan - Bison are amazing animals. They are Europe's largest land mammal. They are one of our last real megaherbivores that we have. And European bison can do things that no other animals can do purely by way of their size, really. And, because of this big size, they can really push through into dense vegetation. And the reason we've used bison in this area is because what we want in our Woodland is to really try to create a really dynamic and rich habitat. And what that requires is that the Woodland has lots of different structures, the trees in the Woodland are all different sizes or all different ages and the wooden has space for other plants and species to inhabit. And that's what bison do, they go in and they create space in the Woodland. They push over some trees, they crash through smaller areas of brush, and they even actually start to eat the bark off of trees. And so those trees, they start to die off. That might sound like a bad thing, but where you get one tree die off, you end up with dead wood, which is fantastic for creepy crawlies, invertebrates. And where that tree dies. Lots of new trees can grow up in its place. So it really is kind of creating a rich dynamic ecosystem just because bison are out there doing their own job really.
Julia - And who are the bison that you've introduced?
Stan - So we've started really small. We wanted to really get this right. It's a first for the UK. We have an older female and two younger females, and we've got a male bull following up in about three weeks time. There herd structures is a bit like elephants, where the older females in charge. She's the matriarch and she leads the rest of the herd around. And so we had to make sure that she was really happy and settled first, that she knew where she was going, she knew what the space was going to be like so that she could feel settled. And then the other bison come in and then just take her lead. It was amazing to watch these bison meet each other for the first time on site. By instinct, they know this is the bison that's in charge. I'm gonna follow her around and see where we go from there.
Julia - A common controversy surrounding reintroduction is about if a species is native or not to a place, what are your thoughts on this? Do we need to prove bison were here before to have them here now?
Stan - I think it's a really interesting debate and an important one. But for us, it's not the reason that we're bringing these animals in. We don't have any fossil evidence that European bison were here in the UK. Although we do know that their closest ancestors, the steppe bison, which are all extinct now, they were in the UK up to 30,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. And so we just don't know whether European bison were here or not. But what we do know is we used to have animals here who created that dynamism in our woodlands. They were able to push through those dense areas and really kind of change things up as kind of ecosystem engineers. And because European bison are the last animal we have left that can do this. It really is kind of a no brainer. They are the alternative to these really carbon intensive human managed systems. And so this is just a way that we can start to move away from using machinery so much.
Julia - And now we have the first bison out in the UK. How are the impacts of these animals on the environment being monitored? Is there a way you're trying to compare the area of wood that they're living in to other areas?
Stan - So this whole project has been set up as a scientific trial. It's a really big Woodland, about 560 hectares, sort of almost two square miles. And just under half of it will be the bison area and the bison are gonna be in this area with actually some other animals too. They're also going to be in there with Exmoor ponies and iron age pigs, they're kind of a domesticated wild boar hybrid. Having all of these animals together, we think are going to be the absolute best kind of complimentary systems. They eat in different ways, they move around in different ways and, all working together, they can really create that kind of rich habitat. But in order to compare those animals, we needed to have a control area. And so what we have is another area just under half of the Woodland, again, that is being used with domestic equivalents.
Stan - So, instead of bison, we have Longhorn cows and then we have the same ponies and the same pigs, so that we can just test the difference between what a domestic cow can do versus what bison can do. And then we have a third area, which is our control area. In that area, there are no animals at all. It doesn't mean we won't do anything at all. Instead, we just continue with that traditional Woodland management, using machinery, using chainsaws. And that way we can compare the type of Woodlands and the way that they're managed today in the UK, versus what these different animals can bring us. What we've got are collars on the animals that tell us exactly where they are at any time. So we can track where they are. We are now monitoring, absolutely everything you could imagine. We're taking soil samples all across the site, 142 in fact, across the whole site, because of course we're gonna have all this fantastic bison dung on site, as much as anything else, which really is kind of rocket fuel for the plant life on site. And then of course we want to think about how the vegetation is changing, because as I mentioned, the way that the structures change on site, the way that the woodland will grow in different ways, all provides different opportunities for different species.
Julia - What has the public reaction been to the bison? Have people been worried because we've got these now really large animals in the wild per se in the UK, or have people been really excited and looking forward to getting involved and maybe even catching a glimpse of these animals.
Stan - It's been so amazing to see people's reaction to this project. When we first put it together, we thought this is pretty out there. You know, not many people have ever attempted to do something in conservation of this kind of scale. And so we were a bit nervous. We thought that people might be a bit resistant to wanting these big animals and we couldn't have been more wrong. People have been so excited for, I think the last two years, every person I meet says to me 'when are the bison coming? When are the bison coming? I can't wait to see the bison.' And so it's been fantastically positive. There have been some individual concerns. Most of those things come from maybe not understanding what these animals are like because people think, oh, that's a really big animal, It's gonna be really scary, maybe it's really dangerous. But actually they'll all be behind fences
Stan - So people will be kept sort of separate from those animals, so that animals can remain safe and the public can remain safe. We've in fact experienced in Holland where you can go and stand in places that have bison without any fence in between you and they're so amazingly calm. But this way we can show how we can live alongside these big, almost prehistoric creatures. And it, you know, can be fantastic for our environments and hopefully gives people a real kind of connection to nature. Something that really gives you a sense of awe around what our habitats and species are and can be in this country. And I think that's fantastic for everyone, which is a sort of chance to re-wild ourselves, I suppose, as well.