Three go wild in Canterbury - an update on the Wilder Blean Project
A month after the UK’s first wild bison were released into West Blean and Thornden Woods, Bison Rangers Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright give an insight into how the herd has settled. From games of chase amongst the youngsters to the matriarch’s unusual taste for bracken, living life on the wild side is what these three ecosystem engineers were born to do.
Bison Ranger Tom Gibbs explains: “Whilst they are very much wild animals, they have distinctive personalities. I have seen the two younger females playing and enjoying their surroundings. They will jump in the air when they get excited, chase each other and run around. They also have quite specific head movements when at play. They are really enjoying being outside, it’s fantastic they are comfortable enough to interact in this way.
“The herd is exploring more and more of the woodland. Initially they did not wander too far away from the corral - the area where they had their veterinary checks on their first day. As time has gone on, they are getting accustomed to the site and are venturing further each day.
“The matriarch likes the bracken and can often be seen trampling and even lying down on it. The calf with one horn seems to have a taste for brambles. It will be interesting to see her face once the berries start to come through. To grow, the berries need light, and the bison are beginning to create more light in the woodland already through their natural behaviours, so in a way they are making their own dessert!”
The bison have been released into the woodland as part of the Wilder Blean Project, a joint wilding initiative between Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust. The bison will reshape the landscape, creating light and space for wildlife to thrive. It is hoped the project will be used as a template for other organisations to fight the climate and biodiversity crises.
Bison Ranger Donovan Wright explains how, in just one month, they are already changing the structure of the woodland: “The bison have already had a remarkable impact. I did not expect it to be so sudden, but literally from the first day you could sense their presence in the woods.
“We have seen them create a network of paths opening up trails of up to a meter wide. Through dense silver birch thickets that were once almost impenetrable, you can now comfortably walk along bison trails. And we are not the only ones using them, I have seen foxes, rabbits, and a slow worm sunbathing on one.
“When you follow the bison trails there is the unmistakable smell of bison in the air, and of course bison droppings. They have healthy appetites, eating up to 35kg of vegetation a day, and with that come lots of fertilizing and seed dispersal.
“The birds have figured out that bison droppings attract invertebrates. They have been pecking at the bison dung, feasting off insects.”
It took just over two years to get to a stage where the herd could be released into the Blean, with the global pandemic and Brexit causing delays to the importation process. Over that time Tom and Don eagerly awaited the arrival of the bison.
Don explains the impact the animals have made on him: “It is great we are fully fledged Bison Rangers now. I pinch myself every day. It is such a privilege to spend time with the bison and to witness the changes taking place in the woods. Every day I am awestruck. Everybody should have this experience.
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the bison and the privilege of spending time with them, as well as the Wilder Blean vision and all that has gone in to make it a reality.
“I also feel the weight of responsibility, not only for taking care of the bison, but also for helping people reconnect with nature. This is just the start, and hopefully a ray of hope in our efforts to save our planet.”
The arrival of the three female bison is the first milestone within the Wilder Blean Project. Within the next eight weeks a bull from Germany will be released into the herd and it is hoped within time that they will breed. Once the herd are settled, Longhorn cattle, Iron-Age pigs and Exmoor ponies will also be released into the Blean. Each animal has its own unique impact on the woodland to help nature thrive.
West Blean and Thornden Woods will be closely monitored by experts who will be surveying wildlife abundance, new species that make the woods home and even measure the carbon that will be captured within the woodland.
The project became a reality thanks to funding from Players of People’s Postcode Lottery who provided £1.125m from the Dream Fund.