Eyes wide and walking gingerly at first, the bearded matriarchal bison flicked her tail before encouraging two younger companions to follow. That was the moment when bison returned to Britain: a UK-first for conservation as this first wave of pioneering animals were released into ancient woodlands near Canterbury.
Led by the Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust, this first release in July was part of a five-year project to introduce a small herd of bison into West Blean and Thornden Woods, where they will be left to rearrange the landscape in a way that is hoped will turbocharge the return of natural biodiversity.
Their every move will be monitored by a team of ‘bison rangers’ who will ensure the animals’ welfare and get them established as ‘ecosystem engineers’, a term capturing their expected role in restoring habitats to former glory.
The European bison teetered on the brink of extinction before being reintroduced in Poland, Germany, Romania and now the UK.
Bison on the Great Plains
Bringing back bison to Britain for the first time in thousands of years is an echo of similar projects being carried out on the other side of the Atlantic.
Wanuskewin heritage park in Saskatchewan, Canada recently saw the first wild bison calf born there for more than a century. It followed the release of pregnant females there in an ambitious plan to rewild the plains by restoring natural grasslands.
Once a dominant habitat over much of North America, grasslands are now one of the most endangered biomes in the world. By introducing pure-bred bison back to former agricultural land, conservationists hope to restore native grasses and create habitat for an animal which was all but extinct in the late 1800s.
Some of Canada’s reintroduced bison were descended from the population of wild bison that survived over the US border in Yellowstone National Park.
I got to see wild bison for myself during a visit to Yellowstone, America’s first and largest national park, where I learned how tens of millions of bison on the Great Plains have since given way to cattle and then to corn.
In Yellowstone, the air was infused with the most wonderful scent of pine. The landscape was painted with fantastic mountains and forests, big sky and cool breeze. The park is massive, covering nearly 3,500 square miles.
A close encounter
Whilst there, I saw the magical sight of hundreds of wild bison moving in straggly lines, converging on a favoured watering spot. There were rusty-coloured calves beside brunette adults. They were grazing, drinking and rolling playfully in the dust.
On foot, I inadvertently got close to a lone bison sat hunched in the shade of the afternoon. With woolly head framed by formidable horns, she sat motionless but for a tail swishing like rope against her leathery hide, sending a dust plume with every swipe.
It put me in mind of how things were up to the late 1800s when 30 to 50 million bison roamed the Great Plains. They weighed in total about the same as the entire human population of North America today.
Always on the move, these vast herds were sustained by nothing more than rain, sunshine and grass. They were perhaps the most potent example of grazing animals living harmoniously with their environment, of the power of pasture.
Refugees in a sanctuary
Few wild bison roam freely on the plains these days. The ones I saw in Yellowstone were grazing in pasture clearings surrounded by mountains and trees. An impressive sight, yes, but a pale shadow of what there used to be.
The park itself is surrounded by farmland, these natural wanderers confined to the sanctuary like refugees. If they leave, they’re shot. If their numbers swell beyond a few thousand, they are rounded up and culled.
Much of the Great Plains today has been ploughed up for growing crops, the animals separated from the land and confined to feedlots.
On former bison-grazing land in Nebraska, I remember asking a farmer what this vast prairie of GM corn was all about. “Feeding the world,” he said, yet most of the corn was destined to feed cattle and cars.
No shade and an overpowering stench
I was struck by the irony that, like the bison, many cattle too no longer have the freedom to roam; instead, they are confined to feedlots for ‘battery’ beef.
I remember in Nebraska seeing about 1,000 cattle standing motionless in muddy paddocks, not a blade of grass in sight. The stench of excrement was overpowering. Full-grown cattle and tiny calves were standing in the fierce Nebraskan summer sun with no shade, desperately trying to lie in each other’s shadow.
Whichever way you look at it, industrial agriculture – be it of animals or crops (the two are inextricably linked) – sparks off a cascade of devastating cruelty.
Farm animals like cattle and chickens are removed from the land into crowded sheds or feedlots. Their feed is grown on vast crop prairies, doused in artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides. At the expense of pretty much all life but the crop.
Helping nature to thrive
What’s happening with bison in Britain and Canada is deeply encouraging, not least because it represents official recognition that returning grazing animals to the ecosystem has wider benefits.
Restoring farmland to a place where nature thrives also relies on ensuring farmed animals can experience the joy of life, by returning them to the land as part of overall ecosystems, making them part of living landscapes where nature and food production coexist.
By creating a fusion between food, farming and nature in this way, everyone benefits.
Philip Lymbery is CEO of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and his new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf