Wild Bison Returns to UK for First Time in Thousands of Years

21 July 2022 by Tom Townsend
blog author

Wild bison have been released into the UK for the first time in thousands of years as part of a pioneering conservation project to slow the climate crisis.

The European bison were released into ancient woodland in Kent early on Monday morning, the hottest day on record, by two leading conservation charities.

The Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust are responsible for the ground-breaking project which saw the bison released into West Blean and Thornden Woods, near Canterbury, Kent, to create a more climate resilient landscape by restoring complex habitats.

The five-year project will see the bison restore life to the woodland through their natural behaviours as ‘eco-system engineers’, as the herd offer a nature-based solution to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

The bison will naturally fell trees and create layers within the forest, which will bring a more diverse woodland and move it away from being a monoculture. The wetter areas will also store carbon and reduce flood risk.

European bison will play a key role in helping to restore natural processes in the woodland, thanks to their natural behaviours such as grazing, eating bark, felling trees and taking dust baths, which will open the canopy, creating light and new spaces for wildlife and previously missing species to thrive.

The £1.125m project, funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, was launched two years ago as part of a landmark experiment to test this nature-based solution to habitat management and help combat the climate and nature crises.

Evan Bowen-Jones, Chief Executive Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust, said: “The restoration of naturally functioning ecosystems is a vital and inexpensive tool in tackling the climate crisis.

“The bison will help to create climate resistant landscapes which can adapt to the challenges presented by the crisis we face.

“We want Wilder Blean to mark the beginning of a new era for conservation in the UK. We need to revolutionise the way we restore natural landscapes, relying less on human intervention and more on natural engineers like bison, boar and beaver.

“Equally important, is that the Wilder Blean project will connect people with nature in a way that hasn't been possible before in the UK because we haven't had big wild animals present in our landscapes. We hope that those who visit the woodland and learn about the project will be inspired by what we are doing and become champions for nature too.”

The bison will soon be joined by other grazing animals whose natural behaviours compliment the bison, including Exmoor ponies, Iron Age pigs and Longhorn cattle. They will help to manage the landscape without human intervention and their impact on biodiversity and the landscape will be closely monitored in a long-term survey programme led by Kent Wildlife Trust. 

Paul Whitfield, Director General of Wildwood Trust, said on Monday: “Today heralds a new dawn for conservation and the fight against climate change. 

"As well as helping the biodiversity crisis, one of the fantastic things about this ground-breaking project is that it’s going to demonstrate the very real impact nature-based solutions can have in solving the climate crisis. The two are intrinsically linked and we can’t solve one without the other. 

"With this project, we’re going to prove the impact bison in the wild can have on the environment. They will create an explosion of biodiversity and build habitat resilience; locking in carbon to help reduce global temperature rise. This will act as a huge catalyst for change, with the project being replicated on scale across the country. It will make a phenomenal difference. Its great news in these worrying times. 

“Not only this but we're giving people in the UK - for the first time in over a thousand years - the chance to experience bison in the wild. It's a really powerful emotional, visceral experience and it’s something we’ve lost in this country. It's an absolute privilege to be part of the team that's bringing that back.”

James Seymour, Natural England’s Area Manager for Sussex and Kent, said: “We welcome the Kent Wildlife Trust’s plans to restore West Blean and Thornden Woods SSSI, and compare the benefits of different habitat management approaches, including the use of bison. We want to support projects that aid nature recovery and connect communities with their natural environment.”

Tom Townsend, Principal Consultant – Agriculture, Food and Beverage at Acre, said: “It’s great to see innovative solutions to improve the health of our woodland being implemented; however, we need a significant increase in ambition, scale and investment in order to make a meaningful impact and reverse the environmental damage which has been inflicted over many years.”

According to the State of Nature Report, the UK has seen natural species decline at the fastest rate in thousands of years and this project was created as a direct response.

Animal welfare has been at the heart of the project, with the wellbeing of the bison taking precedence over any media activity.

Tom focuses on mid-senior level Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability appointments across Europe. Previously, Tom focused on senior appointments within Procurement & Supply Chain, with a particular expertise in Consumer Goods across the DACH markets Tom joined Acre to continue the company’s international growth. He holds a first-class degree in Mathematics​.