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A herd of bison released into woodland near Canterbury, Kent, have surprised conservationists by giving birth to a calf.
The animals are part of a rewilding project being run by the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust to see how the large herbivores could help boost biodiversity and play a role in tackling the climate crisis.
Only a few months after they were released into a semi-wild enclosure in southern England, the first European bison to roam the British countryside in thousands of years have given birth to a calf.
In July 2022 three female bison were reintroduced to a woodland in Kent as part of a rewilding project that aims to return the forest to a more natural and biodiverse habitat. It is now known that one of these females was already pregnant before being released.
'It is difficult to detect pregnancy in bison as they naturally conceal being in calf to avoid being hunted by predators, it is a survival mechanism,' explains Tom Gibbs, one of the two dedicated Bison Rangers at the Wilder Blean bison project.
'Though it was a surprise to see that the younger female bison had given birth, it was always a possibility, and we have created a care plan for the calf to ensure their needs are met. These animals are wild, so we want to remain as hands-off as possible, but their welfare is at the absolute heart of what we do.'
The calf was discovered on 9 September after its mother disappeared into the forest to give birth in secluded location. The healthy new addition is doing well and is already nibbling leaves and running around the rest of the herd.
Smaller than their American counterparts, European bison are better suited to living in the more confined woodlands that once stretched across much of the continent. The bison in this project have been released into a large wild enclosure where they are being monitored to see what impact they have on the woodland.
In the early twentieth century the European bison, or wisent, was nearly driven to extinction. The animals were hunted so extensively that they only survived thanks to a small number of captive individuals in zoos.
Over the following century the animals were bred and released back into the wild across much of eastern Europe, with further reintroductions having taken place more recently in the west of the continent. Wild populations are now found scattered across Poland, Belarus, Denmark, Romania, Germany and France, amongst many other nations.
European bison were once an important part of the landscape in the UK. The large herbivores are what are known as ecosystem engineers, meaning that as they move through the woodlands in which they live they alter it in ways that can benefit a huge range of other wildlife.
This is done in a number of ways, from creating pathways through the trees that can be used by other animals to opening up watering holes and mud baths that provide a greater diversity of habitats.
The bison in Kent give us a glimpse of what the UK's woodlands would once have looked like when people first started inhabiting the island thousands of years ago.
However, projects to reintroduce bison to the UK are not without controversy. This is because the animals are thought to have gone extinct in the UK at the end of the last ice age not as a result of human interference, but after environmental conditions changed and became unfavourable for bison.
This has led some conservationists to argue that the animals should not be considered native in the same way that beavers or wolves are, and so should not be released back into the wild. Yet, despite this, there is a growing movement to return bison to the countryside, not least as a proxy for other large herbivores such as aurochs which were found in the UK and are now extinct.
This new little bison has been an unexpected bonus for the project in Kent, which was already planning to grow the herd in the future. According to the team, it is being well looked after by the rest of the bison.
'This is an exciting development within a pioneering project,' says Paul Hadaway, the Director of Conservation for Kent Wildlife Trust. 'European Bison are an incredible species, which were on the brink of extinction after the First World War.'
'To think that their numbers now swell beyond 9,000 is a true testament to the commitment and dedication of international breeding efforts and, as an organisation, Kent Wildlife Trust are privileged to now be part of that journey.'
The bison will continue to be monitored by scientists, including some from the Museum, to fully understand what impact they have on the forest.