‘Gentle giants’: rangers prepare for return of wild bison to UK

‘Gentle giants’: rangers prepare for return of wild bison to UK

“When you see them in the wild, there’s this tangible feeling of humility and respect,” says Tom Gibbs, one of the UK’s first two bison rangers. “The size of them instantly demands your respect, although they are quite docile.

I wouldn’t say they are scary, but you’re aware of what they can do.”

The rangers will manage the first wild bison to roam in the UK for thousands of years when four animals arrive in north Kent in the spring of 2022.

The bison are Europe’s largest land animal – bulls can weigh a tonne – and were extinct in the wild a century ago, but are recovering through reintroduction projects across Europe.

“They are magnificent animals, truly gentle giants,” says colleague Donovan Wright, who spent 20 years working with rhino, cape buffalo and other large animals in southern Africa. “The Kent project is very different, but it’s no less important.”

Wright says: “How amazing will it be to track the largest land mammal in the UK on foot right here in [Kent]? To experience something like this only five miles from Canterbury would be just incredible, and help people reconnect with nature.”

Gibbs and Wright have just returned from training with wild bison herds in the Netherlands, where they were reintroduced in 2007.

The £1m Kent project is called Wilder Blean and is run by the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust, and funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery.

A principal aim is for the bison to rewild a dense, former commercial pine forest.

Tom Gibbs (L) and Donovan Wright. Photograph: Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright
Tom Gibbs (L) and Donovan Wright. Photograph: Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright

“What makes bison a keystone species is that they strip bark off of trees by rubbing up against them, and by eating it,” says Wright. “Those trees die and that allows light to reach the forest floors. And, wow, that’s like jet fuel for biodiversity – all of a sudden, you’re creating habitats for other species to thrive.

“Also, just by their sheer size, they carve amazing trails through the vegetation, and they love dust bathing, creating big open patches. That’s all fantastic for pioneer plants, insects and sand lizards.” The insects living on the dead wood left behind are amazing for woodpeckers and bats too, Wright says.

The rangers visited the Kraansvlak project in the Netherlands, where people can walk freely through the area occupied by 14 bison and where there has never been a dangerous incident. But part of the training was learning the animals’ behaviour to ensure safety.

“You read the animals, so if they’re giving you signs that they’re not really comfortable with your presence, you just back away,” says Gibbs. The signs include staring, alert ears, heads flicking up and down, pawing of the ground, or the herd fanning out. “In reality, the bison are the ones who maintain the [50 metre safety] distance, by moving away.”

Like the bison in Kraansvlak, the animals in Kent will wear GPS collars, but these can get damaged and so tracking skills are needed to ensure the rangers can find the animals without startling them. Broken twigs and tufts of fur on branches are clues, as well as hoofprints in softer ground.

The rangers also learned how to encourage the bison into a corral for quick health checks. “There are a few tricks of the trade, such as certain foodstuffs,” says Gibbs, but these are kept secret to avoid the public trying to attract the bison unnecessarily. It took five years before the Kraansvlak rangers were confident the public could enter the bison area alone, but Wright is not setting a timescale for the Kent project. “We are treading very carefully,” he says.

The Kent herd will be founded by a young bull from Germany and an older female from the Highland wildlife park in Scotland, who will be the matriarch. “She looks beautiful and we’re really confident that she’s going to be a fantastic leader for the group,” says Gibbs. Two young females from Fota wildlife park in Cork, Ireland, will complete the group, which will roam and feed freely across 210 hectares (519 acres).

The rangers expect the bison to breed – females produce one calf a year – and the site is licensed for up to 10 animals. In future, they hope to provide bison to found other sites in the UK, as well as exchanging animals across Europe. All 7,000 bison living in Europe are descended from just 12 zoo animals, and the species is still classed as vulnerable, so maximising genetic diversity is very important.

Preparations are now under way at Wilder Blean for the arrival of the bison. “We’re putting up a 1.4-metre electric fence to contain the bison and then, on the perimeter, we’ve got a 6ft deer fence to keep the people out,” says Wright.

Ponds are also being dug for the bison to drink from, as well as the longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and “iron age” pigs that will help restore the landscape. Wright says: “We had another interesting dilemma: how do you get a herd of bison safely over a public footpath [that crosses the site]? The answer was bison-sized tunnels, so we are working on that at the moment.”

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and the rangers hope the bison project will be a beacon for a wider recovery. “By using nature-based solutions, we can really turn the tide and help mitigate the effects of the current climate and biodiversity crises that we face,” says Wright.

“A lot of people feel frustrated about a lack of action but I think this project is a real beacon of what can be done,” says Gibbs. “We can’t wait for the bison to arrive and for them to start doing what they do best.”

This article by Damian Carrington was first published by The Guardian on 11 December 2021. Lead Image: The rangers will manage the first wild bison to roam in the UK for thousands of years. Photograph: Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright.

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