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Return of the ‘ecosystem engineers’

HERNE BAY, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – As the sun rose yesterday over southeast England, three bison emerged from a corral into a new woodland home as part of an ambitious project to transform the natural environment.

The trio immediately began munching birch tree leaves in the ancient woods near Canterbury, to restore and manage the area with their behaviour – and minimal human interference.

It marks the first time in millennia that European bison – the continent’s largest land mammal and the closest living relative to ancient steppe bison that once roamed Britain – will live in wild conditions once again.

“(It’s a) really momentous occasion today,” Mark Habben of the Wildwood Trust, which is leading the five-year conservation project, told AFP.

“It couldn’t have gone any better… they took a glance back, looked at us and then disappeared into the woodlands,” he added, moments after the release.

The female bison – one matriarch and two younger cows – will now graze, eat bark, fell trees and take so-called dust baths, churning up the ground in the woods.

This creates a multitude of benefits, helping other species forge habitats as the bison become the perfect “ecosystem engineers”.

Bison are released from a corral at the Wildwood Trust nature reserve in Kent yesterday, the first time the animals have roamed freely in the United Kingdom in thousands of years. PHOTO: AFP

“We’re doing this to restore the environment and restore a native English woodland and everything that thrives in and around that kind of habitat,” explained Habben, saying it was “critically important”.

“We don’t want to be using machinery… using native resources, ecosystem engineers as we like to call them – in the form in this case of the European bison – is exactly the right thing to do.”

The female bison, which arrived after living on smaller enclosures in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, will be joined by a bull at the site, owned by the Kent Wildlife Trust charity, in the coming months.

The bull’s arrival from Germany was delayed due to Britain’s post-Brexit bureaucracy for importing animals.

The herd will initially have 55 hectares of fenced woodland to roam within, before their habitable space is eventually increased to 200 hectares.

It is hoped the bull will breed with the females to increase the size of the herd, with the Kent site licensed to hold up to 20.

The bison will also soon be joined by other grazing animals including ponies from Exmoor, southwest England and Longhorn cattle, which will aid the bid to create a variety of natural habitats.

“This is a model for what we would hope could be rolled out much (more) broadly across the United Kingdom (UK) to similar landscapes, utilising bison,” said Habben.

“I like to think bison that we bred on this project by the time they reach maturity… there’ll be other projects looking to do the same kind of thing.

“And we can move bison around to continue this really amazing work that these animals are going to do.”

After roaming the continent for millennia, the last wild European bison became extinct on the continent in 1927, due to hunting and habitat loss.

However, 50 animals remained in captive collections which have provided the basis for an extensive and intensive breeding programme, according to the project’s conservationists.

The trio now calling the Kent woodland home are some of their descendants.

“The bison that we’ve selected are part of the European endangered species breeding programme,” said Habben.

“We selected the animals based on their genetics… but also their location and source of origin was very important.”

Another central aim of the habitat restoration project – costing GBP1.1 million (USD1.3 million) and largely funded by donors – is to help British ecosystems cope with climate change and severe biodiversity loss.

The bison’s impact will gradually alter the forest away from a monoculture and create wetter areas that will store carbon, reducing emissions driving up temperatures, while also reducing flood risk.

In a sign of the stakes, their release yesterday coincides with a heatwave sweeping parts of Europe that is set to break Britain’s all-time temperature record early this week.

Habben calls the coincidence “extremely relevant”.

“It’s an incredible story, really, that we’re releasing bison to help restore ecosystems, which help restore the environment and hopefully have some impact on climate change.”