Bison roam wild in Britain for the first time since the Ice Age

Rangers hope to take the public for a walk on the wilding side as Europe's largest land animals help fight climate change

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Tom Gibbs is stepping over cordless drills and lengths of freshly sawn timber as he leads the way upwards through workers busily finishing off the construction of a long curved ramp.

“Stairway to heaven,” he says, with a boyish grin over his shoulder.

He is not going to let the fact that there aren't any stairs detract from the description. After all, for the past year Gibbs has been a wild bison ranger with, well, no bison.

“We’re starting to see that change now with the bison arriving,” he tells The National. “It’s fantastic to be able to say that … I think I’ll still get that perplexed look of ‘Bison ranger? What’s that?’

“But it’s great to explain it to people because that’s part of the project — to start the conversation and get people interested as to why we’re bringing bison in and what they’re going to do.”

What Europe’s largest land animals are going to do is fill an ecological niche that has been vacant for millennia in Britain, and the viewing platform at the top of the “stairway to heaven” — the new sloping boardwalk at Wildwood animal park — is where the public engagement begins.

The pioneering project by two leading conservation charities, Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust, has been more than two years in the making even before the first Bison bonasus showed her shaggy hide late last week.

With more than a pinch of understatement, Gibbs says there have been “quite a lot of unforeseen circumstances that mean deadlines haven’t worked as we would have liked”.

The three “gentle giants” finally released into West Blean and Thornden Woods just after dawn on Monday are the first of their species to roam wild in the UK since their close relatives, the ancient Steppe Bison, did so during the last Ice Age.

Tom Gibbs, one of the UK’s two bison rangers, standing on the viewing platform at the top of the 'stairway to heaven' at Wildwood animal park, which overlooks West Blean and Thornden Woods, Kent. Amy McConaghy / The National

Many thousands of years on, the contrast couldn’t be more stark as the Met Office issued a red extreme heat warning with temperatures tipped to reach a record high of 40°C.

The feeling of urgency is palpable that, after coming through the considerable hindrances of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, there’s now not a moment to lose in what is hoped will be a new era for conservation in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

“There’s something poetic about the fact that the bison will be released on the hottest day of the year,” Gibbs says, “because that’s one of the things we’re facing and one of the reasons why the bison have been introduced.

“We’ve seen a changing world before our eyes, and we are realising that nature needs help to adapt to these uncertain times.”

The next few months are critical for the nascent social herd, with all involved in the project keen that the individuals establish themselves within the group and the grounds before winter sets in.

There will be no dispute about which of them is in charge. The younger two cows trucked in from the Fota and Highland wildlife parks in Ireland and Scotland — and a bull yet to arrive from Germany — will follow the 14-year-old matriarch, who will decide where they feed and when they sit down to ruminate.

“She's the leader,” says Gibbs, “so they will all toe the line.”

While he and his fellow ranger Donovan Wright are looking forward to hearing the clitter-clatter of tiny cloven hoofs around the Blean as early as next year, Gibbs says they’re both content to let the bison “do what they do” when the fancy takes them.

They plan to be as hands-off as possible in all respects, letting the new incumbents take over the ecological engineering that has latterly been done with heavy machinery and chainsaws.

The Wilder Blean experiment, funded by £1.575 million ($1.87m) from the People's Postcode Lottery Dream Fund, aims to prove that these behemoths can provide a sustainable solution to woodland management in south-east England just as they have in similar programmes across Europe.

Bison, depicted above in paintings in the Altamira caves in Cantabria, Spain, have not roamed wild in the UK since the Ice Age. Getty Images

It will be closely monitored as a controlled trial with the efforts of the bison measured against those of longhorn cattle, Iron-Age pigs and Exmoor ponies in a neighbouring enclosure, and traditional human means of intervention in a third.

With their solid, muscular heads and necks and short powerful legs, European bison can weigh as much as 900 kilograms and grow to 1.8 metres tall.

Their natural behaviours — grazing, dust bathing, dispersing seeds stuck in their fur, creating standing deadwood from some trees by eating bark and allowing light to filter to the woodland floor by knocking down others — enable myriad species to thrive.

Wright calls it “jet fuel for biodiversity” and describes a cascading effect through the ecosystem with everything from bugs and stag beetles to birds and bats the beneficiaries.

“You look at bison,” Gibbs says, “and from their mouth all the way through to the other end, they’re doing amazing things …

The Wilder Blean experiment aims to prove that bison are as adept at woodland management in south-east England as they have been in similar projects in Europe, such as the one in Poland, above.  Reuters

“Hopefully, we won’t be out of a job as they start to manage the site for us,” he jokes.

When the Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust called for candidates in January last year to fill the vacancies for the first-ever bison rangers in the UK, 1,200 people responded, some with songs and drawings.

Even 13 months after their appointments, neither Gibbs ("I have to pinch myself”) nor Wright ("I didn't apply in the beginning because I didn't want to waste their time”) can quite believe that they were given these roles of a lifetime in the groundbreaking wilding project just five miles from Canterbury.

Of his first encounter, Gibbs recalls being “blown away” by the sheer size of Wildwood's two resident captive bison, Haydes and Orsk, describing them as majestic and handsome, and the moment as magical and humbling.

He came from the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and talks about how lucky he is to work with Wright, who has more than 20 years' experience conducting walking safaris and drives among the “Big 5" — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — in some of Africa's most prestigious reserves.

Of his first encounter, Gibbs recalls being 'blown away' by the sheer size of Wildwood's two resident captive bison, Haydes and Orsk, above, describing them as majestic and handsome, and the moment as magical and humbling. Photo: Kent Wildlife Trust

He is, says Gibbs, “Mr Encyclopedia” on all things tracking, which should come in handy if the technology in the collars worn by the bison is ever damaged or compromised.

“I've been picking up so much from him. They're big animals so we should be able to find them relatively easily,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “The GPS is kind of there as a fail-safe more than anything.

“We're going to be looking for the tell-tale signs of snapped twigs, tufts of hair on trees, prints in the muddy terrain. So all of these things pieced together will hopefully help us keep a close eye on them.”

From Wright's perspective, the two rangers are a perfect match, complementing each other. “We look at things completely differently, and it's nice to sit down and discuss things. It really, really works.”

The duo are of one mind, however, on the debt of gratitude owed to those who came before them. In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the European bison as an endangered species almost 60 years after the last wild animal was shot by poachers in the north-western Caucasus.

Even 13 months after their appointments, neither Tom Gibbs (left) nor Donovan Wright can quite believe that they were given these roles of a lifetime in the groundbreaking wilding project just five miles from Canterbury. Alamy

Thank goodness, Wright says, that scientists realised the seriousness of the situation and turned to the 54 animals that were in various zoos. The 12 that bred are the antecedents of today’s entire European bison population of around 7,000.

In that time, their changing outlook has been reflected in the IUCN's annual assessments, moving to “vulnerable” and then “near threatened” in 2020.

Before the impending Red List update later this week, Gibbs feels that the populations are stabilising, particularly in the wild. “I would like to think that in the latest IUCN round, we'll see that consolidation. We need to continue to monitor it very, very closely, though, because they are still genetically fragile.

“Disease could pose a real threat to their existence but we're getting to the point now where these projects and the sustained management of the genetic lineage prove that the efforts are working, and that bison are going from strength to strength.

“Hopefully, one day we'll be able to turn around and allow them to have migratory patterns, the mixing of herds in the wild rather than us having to do that. I'm really positive.”

In terms of bison being similar to really dangerous dinosaurs ... look, they respect people.
Tom Gibbs, bison ranger

For now, though, the focus is on the first “soft” stage of the release, in which the bison will be in quarantine on three hectares before being given access to 50 hectares and eventually more than 200 hectares.

The herd will be kept in and people out by 45 kilometres of fencing in three layers, including a 4.5-foot-high interior electric fence and a 6-foot-high deer fence around the perimeter.

It is hard, Gibbs concedes, when looking at the fence lines, not to draw comparisons with the fictional Jurassic Park, but he has no fear of being chased around by rampaging bovine any time soon.

In fact, a main objective of Wilder Blean is to help reconnect the public with nature in a way that has perhaps not been possible in the absence of such big, wild animals.

One of the end goals is to enable people to walk among the bison as they can in the Kraansvlak project that the two rangers visited in the Netherlands a few months ago, to see how the established herd there is monitored and managed.

“In terms of bison being similar to really dangerous dinosaurs,” Gibbs says, laughing, “look, they respect people. It's one of those things that if you're calm around them, they're calm. I really think that it’s going to be brilliant, and people are going to love them.”

Updated: July 18, 2022, 2:35 PM