Down in darkest Kent – the ‘Garden of England’ – something stirs, or should do very soon if conservation bodies have their way. Moves are afoot – or ahoof – to turn out European bison into the woodlands, as Dr John Jackson reports.

EXTENDING over 11 square miles (3,000 hectares) to the north and east of Canterbury, the Blean is one of England’s largest and most distinctive areas of ancient lowland woodland, important nationally for both its wildlife and history.

With its heavy clay and acid soils, the woodland was mostly spared as farmland, and trees such as oak and sweet chestnut are common. 

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Today the Blean survives for three main reasons:

•    Most of the woodland is on heavy, acidic clay soils and the effort to clear trees for farming was just not worth it. 
•     Nearly all of the Blean Woods today are protected, as it is recognised that the woodland is important for wildlife, landscape quality and recreation. 
•     Perhaps most importantly, through various uses the woodland has provided a valuable economic resource over thousands of years. Oak and sweet chestnut products were an important source of poles for the hop gardens as well as construction material, and fuel for dwellings, iron smelting and gunpowder making. 

The Blean Woods are a bit unusual compared to many others, too. Back in 1189, Richard I gave Church Wood to the Cathedral Priory, probably to repay funds received for his third crusade. With other local woods already owned by the church, this resulted in most of the Blean Woods falling under religious ownership until the mid-20th century.

Almost all the woodland which makes up the Blean complex is classified as ancient woodland. Its value for wildlife is recognised at a national level, with more than half designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and around a third earmarked as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). 


The Blean Initiative itself is a partnership of landowners, local authorities, parish councils, conservation bodies and community groups working together to look after this unique landscape, its wildlife and its heritage for all those who live, work or visit the region. A prime example of cooperation and joining up the dots, the Big Blean Walk is a circular way-marked ramble through most of the woodlands that stretches for 25 miles, giving some idea of the scale of tree cover. 

The larger blocks of lowland woodlands, upwards of 100 ha, making up the jigsaw include: 
•    Blean Woods National Nature Reserve (RSPB), a National Nature Reserve (NNR) covering 509 ha of woods and heath.

Forestry Journal:
•    Forestry England-owned Clowes Wood nearer to Whitstable at 236 ha – a mixed woodland of birch and conifer.
•    The Woodland Trust’s Victory Wood, a 140-ha (350-acre) site on the western edge of the Blean complex, nearly all a novel, themed woodland planted between 2005 and 2008 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. 
•     The Kent Wildlife Trust’s West Blean and adjoining Thornden Woods which encompass 460 ha, plus East Blean NNR at 122 ha and South Blean at 329 ha. 


This is the title of a project by the Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT) and the Wildwood Trust in part of the West Blean Woods nature reserve. 

The Great Storm of 1987 hit the zone hard and either wreaked havoc or opened up new possibilities, depending on your viewpoint. 

Before the KWT acquired the property, it was managed commercially for timber production, which is why almost half the wood is covered in plantations of non-native conifers, often Corsican pine. 

The KWT has been managing West Blean and Thornden Woods for the past 18 years. It is a site of Special Scientific Interest for the rare invertebrate assemblage there and is an ancient woodland. 

Using livestock to modify and mould habitats is nothing new. To try to diversify the area by opening up the continuous tree cover and remove the non-native conifers, a system of extensive grazing regimes has been in place there for the past decade using rough grazers such as Highland cattle and Konik ponies. 

Now it’s time to bring on the heavy brigade with the hefty addition of the European bison (Bison bonasus), the continent’s largest land mammal, with adult males weighing as much as a tonne.

While it was first marketed in some conservation circles as the ‘reintroduction’ of the European bison (or winset) as a long-lost member of British fauna, that misleading term has now largely been dropped and the expression ‘rewilding’ substituted. 

Maybe I am being a bit niggly, but a moot question is if this animal is really being welcomed back into the British Isles – ipso facto, did this species ever roam these shores in the first place or should this powerful, flagship herbivore really be thought of an introduced exotic when they arrive and are semi-feral?

The European bison is not native to Britain, but its former close relative, the globally extinct steppe bison, Bison schoetensacki, once roamed here, at least during the Pleistocene, thousands of years ago. 

However, the surviving European bison could be considered by some as a suitable surrogate for this long-gone ancestor.


Once almost extinct itself, the history of this modern open-forest dweller is a successful conservation story – one of recovery from a critically low number. 

By the early 1900s B. bonasus was teetering on the brink of extinction and could only be found in two protected areas – the ancient forests of the former Soviet Union and in Poland. History has it that the last wild bison was killed in the primeval Białowieza Forest around 1919.

By 1927, the only members of the species left were living in captivity in European zoos with numbers reduced to the last 54 animals. So with a tiny gene pool and a lack of diversity due to this population bottleneck, though the species is still considered vulnerable, stocks have grown thanks to successful captive breeding programmes.

Numbering well over 5,000 now, about 80 per cent of European bison are wild. 

True reintroduction efforts have re-established herds of this magnificent quadruped in the wild in the Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Russia.

Don’t get confused, though. The European bison may closely resemble its North American cousin (Bison bison) but it is a distinct species in its own right, living in small family groups of up to a dozen.

The North American bison or buffalo once roamed the prairies in vast herds. It is the national animal of the USA. Usually thought of as a plains or grassland dweller, there is a second subspecies known as the wood buffalo (B. b. athabascae) found in North-west Canada, which is larger, with a more pronounced ‘hump’. 


Ecosystem engineers are keystone wildlife species that change their environment through their natural behaviour – beavers would be an example. 

Through grazing, foraging, wallowing and trampling, the hefty European bison boosts habitat diversification. Bison also uniquely tend to rub up against trunks to remove their thick coat of winter fur, often resulting in the tree’s downfall. 

On the Continent, with its harsher winters, the bison debark conifers. Some believe they do so for its nutritive value, but chemicals in the bark of certain trees inhibit the action of micro-organisms in the rumen, so slowing down digestion, inducing satiation or the feeling of being full when food is scarce. This herbivore’s habits in the milder UK winter may not be the same as in central Europe with its challenging winters and hotter summers. 

If all goes well, the first nucleus of a male bison, a female and her yearling should be turned out into a substantial fenced enclosure under the watchful daily eye of two rangers in spring this year. The animals on site at West Blean will be sourced from free-ranging herds. 

The hope is that, through their feeding, trampling and dust-bathing activities, the bison will gradually open up the tree cover to create a more diverse and healthier mosaic of habitats. That may mimic the ancestral woodlands where the huge forerunners of domestic cattle – the aurochs – held sway. 

By getting the right animals for the job – the so-called ecosystem engineers – the KWT expects to see the woodland transformed into a richer, more species-abundant place for both wildlife and people to enjoy.

So using bison and other large animals is a rather different and more natural approach to converting coniferised plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) back to a more native status.

Of course, using bison as unpaid labour – with free board and lodging – also offers novel marketing opportunities, with guided bison walks or safaris on the cards, and should serve as a useful PR and recruitment tool for organisers too.  

The pioneer bison trio will be in a large, controlled, fenced trial area away from public footpaths. Only once the bison are settled in, the KWT anticipates, people will be able to walk through areas where these creatures are present without any issues, so long as humans maintain a respectful distance. These lumbering giants are quite capable of bursts of surprising speed over short distances. 

If the trial shows promise, more bison will be released in due course to boost the founder population, build up the herd and continue opening up and diversifying the environment.
The initial phase of this project is running for three years until May 2023 and has received outside funding. Spearheaded by the Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust, the ground-breaking project is banked by £1,125,000 from the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund.

Installations are pressing ahead before the bison arrive this spring and include all the necessary infrastructure, fences and gates as well as ponds and watering holes. There will also be improvements to visitor access by way of viewing platforms and new paths to ensure the human experiences are memorable too. 

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This is a first for the UK, but elsewhere in Europe free-living bison are being used in similar ventures to manage and enhance woodland habitats. The Netherlands boasts a leading example. 

The project philosophy incorporates novel, nature-based enterprises to underpin the ongoing funding requirements, provide new learning opportunities and support new jobs.

It envisages guided nature walks and safaris alongside educational visits. It is anticipated that the upmarket, headline-grabbing project should have a positive impact on local businesses such as hotels, campsites, shops and B&Bs by boosting visitor numbers.

Other examples of conservation projects in the UK making multi-use of wooded sites to generate extra income locally would be ospreys in Scotland and red kites in Wales. 


Making the best of domestic or enclosed animals to mould and modify woodlands in the UK – by accident or design – is nothing new and dates back centuries. 

The trend for conservation grazing is taking a twist and going upmarket in the Blean by importing the European Bison Brigade – the JCBs of ungulates, or ‘Bisondozers’.

Paraphrasing the words of the song, “If you go down to the Blean in May, you’re sure of a big surprise”. 

Watch this space.