Brits and Bison

The U.K.’s new bison are settling in.

Three female Bison bonasus (or wisent) have been roaming the overgrown, under-grazed woodland outside Canterbury for three months now. Bison Rangers Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright seem pleased with their progress. According to the U.K.’s first-ever bison rangers, the horned ecosystem engineers have found plenty of birch, oak, sweet chestnut, brambles, and bracken to munch. Their boisterous grazing has created openings in a forest choked with non-native trees and unruly vegetation. Their hooves are plowing new tracks through the undergrowth and wisps of their fur dangle from tree trunks used as scratching posts. They have also started chewing the bark off non-native Corsican pines, promising the unwelcome conifers will come crashing down in a few years. The bison are, in other words, doing exactly what wild bison do in an ecosystem when left to their own devices.

Next up is the arrival of a big bull bison from Germany. The bull will turn the tiny bison herd into a breeding population. If the timing works out, the two younger females may become pregnant as early as next winter. By the following summer, the herd could number six. The bisons’ impact on the forest will grow and the herd will gain the added symbolism of becoming a self-sustaining population. A two-thousand pound mammal that has not lived wild on British soil for thirty-thousand years will be reproducing not far from commuters heading to London on the morning train.

Photo of a European bison by Bartosz Andrzejuk on Unsplash

The majority of the money spent on bringing the bison back went towards building a two-meter-high fence around the bison’s new home in Blean Woods. Although a small electric fence is enough to keep bison contained, their legal status in the U.K. as “dangerous wild animals” means the group coordinating the restoration, Kent Wildlife Trust, was obliged to take extra measures to prevent members of the public from getting too close. Stan Smith, the manager of the Trust’s Wilder Blean Project, told me this legal requirement created all sorts of headaches while planning the bison return. In the Netherlands, by contrast, bison are not required to be isolated from walkers. At some point down the road, the bison’s legal status in Britain will have to be fixed.

The legal obstacles are telling. The fact a native species is classified as a “dangerous wild animal” – joining others in this category such as pet tigers and Burmese pythons – shows how dissociated the British system has become from wildlife. This is particularly true with species deemed a little more intimidating. A previous effort to reintroduce lynx to Scotland was put on hold due to the lack of a public conversation about returning a sharp-clawed predator to the landscape.

One of the secondary goals of the efforts at Wilder Blean is to change this perception of wildlife. When I asked Smith if part of his job was to nudge the British idea of wildlife in a different direction, he said “Yes, absolutely….You are trying to change behaviors and attitudes.” The timing was good, Smith said, and younger British people were receptive.

It’s hard not to notice that the bison lumbering through the forest outside Canterbury are carrying quite a weight on their broad shoulders. Not only do they have a significant ecological task on their hands. They have an important cultural one too. At the same time as changing the forest, they have the job of changing British perceptions. Both of these take time and there will doubtless be stumbles along the way.

But from the bison’s point of view, the work will be easy.  They need to continue to be bison. At this, they are experts. All it involves is continuing to eat birch and bramble, breeding merrily when the season is right, and looking disinterestedly back at the British public who gawk at them from behind a two-meter high wire fence.

[SPOILER ALERT: My new book, Tenacious Beasts, will have quite a lot more to say about bison and wildcat reintroductions in the U.K. when it comes out in February 2023].

One Reply to “Brits and Bison”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: