As part of a wilding project in Kent, three European bison were released into woodlands last July, but what rangers didn’t know was that one of them was pregnant. The new-born calf came as a complete surprise. But the baby’s progress during the first few months has stunned the team who monitor the small herd.
Born weighing around 40 kg, she is set to tip the scales at a whopping 150 kg next month. She fearlessly mimics her older family members and loves to play, steal food, and even give the tails of older bison a little nip for attention.
Tom Gibbs, one of the country’s first two bison rangers, says: “She is so healthy and has come on leaps and bounds. She is cheeky and obviously has a huge appetite, always thinking with her belly."
Players of People’s Postcode Lottery support Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust bison project in West Blean Woods, near Canterbury, to reverse biodiversity loss in the United Kingdom. This was possible thanks to a Postcode Dream Fund award, which enabled the project’s first phase.
Our country is ranked as one of the most nature-depleted in the world by the World Wildlife Fund, due to fragmented habitats, manmade structures, and intensive farming. But bison could slowly help turn things around.
The European Bison was almost extinct less than 100 years ago but was saved thanks to captive breeding and rewilding efforts in countries such as Poland, the Netherlands and Romania. Although populations are recovering, all European bison descend from a small gene pool. So, establishing new herds helps reduce in-breeding and improves the species' future resilience.
In addition, bison also assist in clearing the dense 50-hectare area of Blean Woods, a result of commercial timber production. One of their favourite foods is the sweet chestnut tree initially grown for timber production.
The beasts also love willow trees which act as a natural antibiotic and snap stems off rhododendrons to rub them on their coats to keep flies away.
By simply grazing, foraging and engaging in other normal bison activities, the animals will do what humans with chainsaws and heavy machinery can't – help maintain the woodland naturally.
The bison are more than just biodiversity savers, they’re fascinating to observe too. Like any functional family, each animal has a unique role, attitude, and personality.
The Scottish matriarch, 18 years of age, was the first bison to arrive in Blean Woods. As a mature female, she is strong and has the respect of others in the herd. She dictates the herd's actions - where to drink, eat, and rest.
The survival of the herd depends on her ability to lead.
Ten days after the matriarch's arrival, she was joined by two young females from Ireland. Finally, a bull from Germany was the last to arrive, and he quickly became a favourite of all the females.
The Matriarch took her time before relaxing around him. At first, he was shy, but he grew more confident thanks to the Matriarch's calming and reassuring presence.
Now, he takes a key role as a protector of the herd, always on the front line, ready to defend against other grazers posing as threats, including wild pigs and wild ponies. In one recent stand-off, they all stood in a line, ready to engage, with the bull standing slightly ahead after encountering some wild pigs. The pigs thought better of it and trotted off, leaving the baby bison well alone.
The bull is the largest in the herd, with beautifully curved 12-inch horns. The Matriarch has a greyish-lighter brown coat and comes second in size.
Two Irish females, one with a single horn, shy but growing confident, adores the calf and has the bull's attention. The other with two horns, feisty, confident, mothered the bison calf and serves as the Matriarch's loyal handmaiden. A battle brewing over which Bison will become the future matriarch.
Tom adds: “I feel privileged to contribute to wilding projects such as Wilder Blean, which was made possible thanks to players of People's Postcode Lottery.
“This initiative offers nature the necessary tools and space to tackle the challenges of climate and species crises.
“Players are welcome to the West Blean and see the amazing work of the Bison and Conservation Grazers.”
The baby is yet to be given a name, but – with the eyes of everyone on her - what she has been given is the starring role in an eco-drama. We cannot wait for the next episode.