Eureka moment for UK: First 'ecosystem engineer,' baby bison born after thousands of years
The U.K. has a surprising newborn wild bison after thousands of years thanks to a remarkable new rewilding project.
In July, three female bison were released in Kent, a county in South East England, but one of them was concealing a baby bison, which the rangers were unaware of, The Guardian reported on Friday.
“The calf has come on leaps and bounds – literally,” said Tom Gibbs, a bison ranger. “She loves to run circles around the adults.”
The new baby has amazed Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust, who collaborated on the project.
Female 2 is usually the one out front and quite self-assured, as per the rangers. The fact that they didn't spot her on a few occasions raised some red flags. The two other females were also a little more guarded and on edge.
“I went off to try and to find her and after about an hour, I could hear some rustling in the tree line,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t want to get too close, so I used my binoculars, and I could see her tail swishing. I thought I saw a muntjac deer behind her, and I thought: ‘What’s that doing, so close to this female?’
“Then, lo and behold, this little face popped out from behind the female, and that was the eureka moment. It was just unbelievable to think this is the first wild-born bison here in England. It was just a monumental moment.”
Steppe bison are thought to have lived in the UK around 6,000 years ago. The European bison from the Netherlands, which are thought to be a close descendant of the steppe bison, were introduced to Kent earlier in July.
Bison are considered allogeneic “ecosystem engineers,” as their natural behaviors can change the environment around them. They alter their surroundings by grazing, soil disturbance from movement, and wallowing.
Because of their fondness for rolling around in dust baths, bison's appetite for bark kills certain trees and their mass clears paths, allowing light to penetrate to the forest floor.
This opens up more space for new species of plants, insects, and birds. A former pine wood plantation is intended to spontaneously recover as part of the Wilder Blean project.
According to Gibbs, who has observed sluggish worms sunning and heard more birds singing, the process has moved fairly quickly.
“We had not seen dung beetles on the site but all of a sudden, they are just thriving,” he said.
“They’ve created tracks and pathways, which has opened up the canopy already, and they’ve been munching on the bark, which over time is going to create the standing dead wood which is so valuable for a whole host of different species,” said Vicki Breakell, a conservation officer at the Wildwood Trust.
To continue its investigation into how bison function as "ecosystem engineers" to restore wild habitat, the wildlife project has raised financial requests. “This is going to be a blueprint that will hopefully act as guidance for other interested organizations and landowners,” said Gibbs.
The site location is permitted to house up to 10 bison, and in the future, it aims to supply bison to establish other locations in the UK and exchange animals with other parts of Europe.
All 9,000 bison that are currently found in Europe are descended from just 12 zoo animals, which prevented the extinction of the species in the early 20th century.