30 October 2023
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It's now 15 months since the herd took their first steps as part of the Wilder Blean rewilding project in Kent, to help tackle the climate and nature crises.
The bison have become an internet sensation, making headlines around the world and even garnering the support of Hollywood legend and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio.
And such has been the global interest and attention in the Wilder Blean project - led by Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust - it's not just the bison that are being recognised.
Paul Hadaway, Director of Conservation at Engagement at Kent Wildlife Trust, said, "I was on holiday in Snowdonia, sitting in front of my tent, having a coffee at 6 o'clock in the morning, when someone came out of the tent right opposite and whispered, 'Are you the man working with the bison in Kent?' I couldn't believe it."
The three year project is funded thanks to players of People's Postcode Lottery.
Our country is ranked as one of the most nature-depleted in the world by the World Wildlife Fund due to fragmented habitats, man-made structures and intensive farming.
But the bison - almost extinct less than 100 years ago - are slowly helping to turn things around.
By simply grazing, dust bathing, eating bark, felling trees and engaging in other normal bison activities, the animals are doing what humans with chainsaws and heavy machinery can't.
They are helping maintain the woodland naturally and breathing new life into the ancient West Blean and Thornden Woods, near Canterbury.
Three females were released onto the land last July but what rangers didn't know at the time was that one of them was pregnant. The surprise arrival is now thriving - growing five times in size.
The herd was complete in December when the bull, from Germany, was finally released into the woodland.
And they've all been busy. The animals can eat up to 35kg of vegetation a day and are leaving behind nutrient-rich dung that's attracting insects - allowing birds to feast off the manure. They've also created a network of trails up to a metre wide.
Matt Hayes, Area Manager of Kent Wildlife Trust, said, "Obviously, bison are big animals. They can weigh nearly a tonne when fully grown. They're moving about in the woods all the time and so their natural behaviour - eating, walking, rolling about and crashing through the undergrowth - is making changes in the habitat, opening up space and creating new opportunities for different wildlife.
"Before the bison, we would have been trying to mimic that result with humans cutting down trees or using forestry machinery. Now the bison and all the other animals we have are doing that for us in a natural way."
Alongside the bison, there are Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle and Iron Age pigs living in the woods, helping transform them into a lush, thriving, biodiverse environment without the need for human intervention.
"They really have got themselves a bit of a following," Matt continued. "We've had so many TV crews coming to film them but it's also been fantastic to welcome so many local visitors who want to learn more about what we're doing. That's what's so brilliant - people getting inspired and understanding the importance of rewilding. It's breaking down barriers and paving the way for other people who want to do a similar thing."
Paul agrees, and says the project is "exceeding his wildest expectations".
"It's a genuine dream for us," he said. "When you look around and see the difference that's being made, even in this short period, it's incredible. This is all about proving we can do it."
The bison may have had a big impact already but the team have even bigger plans for the future, including introducing bison bridges so they can graze in a larger area, increasing the impact they have on the woodland.
The first phase of the Wilder Blean project was enabled through funds raised by players of People's Postcode Lottery. It was awarded £1.125 Million from the Dream Fund by the Postcode Innovation Trust (opens in a new tab) - support the teams are hugely grateful for.
"It's a building block for UK conservation going forward," said Paul. "This is a project that couldn't have happened and wouldn't have happened without the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery and we cannot thank you enough."
Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People's Postcode Lottery, said, "It's been fascinating to watch the progress of these extraordinary animals over the last year and so encouraging to know this project, funded thanks to support from our players, is already making a huge environmental difference."