Bison Whisperers: The Return of the Native

Feb 7 2023


David walks out to the Blean Woods in Kent, with Britain's first Bison Rangers, and marks the triumphant return of the European Bison to British habitats


David Oakes

David Oakes

Host

Donovan Wright & Tom Gibbs (with Kora Kunzmann)

Guest

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About this episode:

To celebrate one of the scarily rare “Good Environmental News Stories” of this and last year, David heads out to Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust’s “Wilder Blean” project just outside of Canterbury. He is there to mark the return of the European Bison to Britain, and the birth of the first bison born in the UK in a free roaming herd since the species went extinct in the wild. In the safe hands of Britain’s first “Bison Rangers”, Donovan Wright and Tom Gibbs, David hears about the knowns and unknowns of this landmark conservation project. How was the species rescued from extinction when its population reached a mere 12 individuals? How did no-one know one of the three initial Kent bisons was pregnant? How much biodiversity is actually supported by their ‘bison pats’? And where can David go to take his ‘bison competency’ training? All the big questions! David also hears how Don began his professional life as a vegetable wholesaler, before eventually becoming a “Big 5” Wildlife Ranger in South Africa, and then landing the top conservation job in the “Big 1” City of Kent (Canterbury is Kent’s only city…) In short – are bisons just big cows, or is there something truly amazing happening in an old forestry plantation behind a Kentish industrial estate?

David also talks to Kora Kunzmann, the Ecological Evidence and Academic Partnerships Lead at the Kent Wildlife Trust, to hear about the mass of man hours that will go into probing the science behind the bison.


David's thoughts:

Prior to my visit to Blean I was warned that the size of the enclosure the Bison are kept in (some 50 hectares), alongside the fact that these are wild animals, would mean that I (like any visitor to the project – permissive footpaths circumnavigate the enclosure) would not be guaranteed a sighting of the herd. The Wilder Blean project is not a zoo, nor a wildlife park, rather a cutting edge conservation experiment with some rather glamorous characters in the star roles.

Added to that – the Bison Bull had only recently arrived and was still settling in with his new ‘herd-mates’ (that’s probably a technical term), and as such the rangers wanted to keep distractions to a minimum to help him settle in. This meant that my expectations were low. In fact, they were so low that I almost postponed my visit until a later date.

(N.b. It goes without saying that in the ‘medium of pod’ the rangers and I could all have committed to a great deception, and pretended to you, dear listeners; role-played that we could see the thrilling bison herd gambolling and grazing, where in reality we could merely see a thicket of birch trees and a lazy blackbird… but that would just not be cricket!)

On a bitterly cold January morning, I arrived at the enclosures’s corral – an area used for the initial release and ongoing monitoring of the animals – and was rushed alongside the outer fence boundary. Rushed, for there in front of me was a solitary female bison. Truly incredible.

Moments later, a calf burst from the tree line. And then, one by one, three further bison arrive. It could not have been better choreographed. I was instantly in awe. It was not even 8am. Tom and Don were yet to join us. And there was I, with my 5 new favourite creatures on the planet!

And then… we all met up again – again, against expectations – in the afternoon. A second private audience with the most incredible additions to our nation’s biodiversity. (I must give off some kind of Bison musk that attracts them to me… perhaps not a good thing to hypothesise out loud…?!) Anyway…

There’s something incredibly bold, and perhaps fool-hardy, to initiate a conservation project without knowing exactly what you hope to happen. And that is where Kora and her team’s immense patience becomes invaluable. But the fact that these bison will be living amongst old plantation land – in parts a ‘desertified’ monoculture with limited biodiversity – the potential for improving this land is massive. With ‘bison hours’ seeming far more efficient and effortless than ‘man hours’ this is an opportunity too bold and interesting not to take.

I wish the project all the luck in the world. I hope this is the first of many bold scientific experiments that draw on the arrival of more re-introduced species to our isle.


“The Bison Family” (Dec ’22) by Donovan Wright

LINKS:

Wilder Blean Project – https://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/wilderblean

Kent Wildlife Trust – https://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/

Wildwood Trust – https://wildwoodtrust.org/

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