The European bison, the largest native terrestrial mammal in Europe, went extinct in the wild in the early 20th century due to habitat degradation and fragmentation, forest logging and unlimited hunting and poaching. The bison that survive today are all descendants of around a dozen animals that were held in zoos.
Bison, more commonly known as ‘wisent’ on the continent, have now been reintroduced into conservation areas in France, Denmark, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. They are broadly considered to be a keystone species with huge potential benefits for conservation projects. The Kransvlaak Wisent Project, in the Netherlands, for example, has a free-roaming herd of bison in a sensitive sand-dune area of only 300 hectares, close to the city of Haarlem. Heavy browsing of encroaching trees and the creation of territorial wallows by the herd has created new habitats and niches for a plethora of species, and stimulated a far more dynamic ecosystem.
There is ongoing debate about whether bison were ever present in Britain after the last ice age. No bison bones have yet been found in the UK. But fossil evidence is notoriously difficult to come by. No fossil bones of the wolf, for example, have ever been found in the Netherlands though it was widespread there until only a few centuries ago, and the last one was shot in 1845. Indeed, fossil evidence is so rare that when it comes to light it often explodes all previous theories. A single accidental find of mammoth bones in 2009 in Condover in Shropshire moved the presence of mammoths in Britain closer to the present day by 7,000 years, to only 14,000 years ago. Absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence.
Moreover, bison bones have recently been discovered in Doggerland under the North Sea dating to the beginning of the Holocene (our current post-Ice Age epoch which began around 11,700 years ago), along with remains of other Holocene fauna such as the aurochs, wild boar, elk, beaver, roe and otter. Doggerland was the land bridge that connected Britain to Europe until rising seas separated us 8,200 years ago. It is highly unlikely that, when we were still physically part of the continent, animals tamely stopped at Calais.
Whether bison were originally here or not, they can play a hugely positive role in nature restoration in the UK, particularly in the conservation of heathlands. Moreover, as European projects demonstrate, bison are not a significant threat to humans and it may even be possible to acclimatise them to walkers with dogs.
The first bison introduction in the UK is at the Wilder Blean project run by Kent Wildlife Trust. We hope this will encourage further reintroductions elsewhere in the UK and, perhaps, one day, at Knepp.