Bring back the Bison. or Wisent.

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Wisent in the lake at Kraansvlak © Miles King

Amid the chaos, recriminations, headless chickens and acrimony of the Brexit vote fall-out last week, I went to the Netherlands with a group from Rewilding Britain. I have an informal role on their policy advisory group, and generally like what they are doing, so was delighted to have been invited along. We were on a trip to see the European Bison, or Wisent (pronounced Vissent), as it should really be called, which had been reintroduced to the Netherlands by fellow organisation Rewilding Europe.

Wisent were effectively extinct in the wild in the 20th century, when there were just a handful of animals in zoos spread across Europe and Russia, and a small population in the Bialowiesza Forest in Poland. There are now 5000 animals, thanks to a careful breeding programme, and animals are being returned to some sort of wildness, in places across Eastern Europe, and one place in the west, Kraansvlak near the Dutch coast.

Our guides from Rewilding Europe told us that Wisent were effectively gone from the wilds of Europe by the Middle Ages, by which time they were confined to hunting forests and reserves (such as Bialowiesza).

Kransvlaak is an area owned by one of the Dutch water companies, an area of stabilised dunes. In the not too distant past much of the Netherlands was covered by mobile dunes, which could swallow entire villages. So a great effort was made to stop them from moving, and this created areas like the Kransvlaak. For a long time the area was just grazed by rabbits and deer, but disease wiped out the rabbits and the deer alone were unable to prevent the dunes becoming covered in scrub (Spindle especially – which is not something we find here in Britain) and started to lose the open ground species, for which it was known to be special. Species such as the Sand Lizard, ground-nesting bees and wasps, and flowers of the dunes. Initially deer, cattle and Konik ponies were introduced, none of whom were interested in the scrub.

The idea of (re)introducing Wisent emerged. There are currently 14 animals in a breeding herd. Some have radiotracker collars on and you can follow their movements on their website. Unlike the Wisent at Bialowiesza, the Kraansvlak animals are not fed in winter, so find their own food. They are quite used to finding grass and other food, under the snow. Wisent graze happily alongside other grazing animals, including horses and cattle, though they are clearly “top” herbivore and will chase away other animals if they don’t like the look of them. This goes for dogs too. Contrary to popular belief they are no more dangerous than cattle, to people. The enclosure at Kraansvlak is 350Ha with a high voltage perimeter fence. There are plans to extend it, using habitat bridges, to a total of 4000ha.

The current enclosure has a Bison Trail running through it, which people are free to walk along. This is what we did. There is a great deal of effort expended on educating visitors, especially those with dogs, about what not to do near the Wisent. But if an animal becomes habituated to people, eg because it has been fed, that animal is removed from the enclosure, because of the risks that it will attack someone.

As you can see from the photo above, Wisent love standing in water. They also like breaking open thorny scrub (hawthorn, gorse) and eating it. Areas that were dense scrub have been returned to flower-rich open dune grassland, as after the Wisent have broken open the scrub, the horses and cattle graze the returning vegetation. Wisent will eat leaves berries and bark of scrub and trees  stripping the bark off quite large trees.

Wisent do other things like bathing in the sand and also creating “bullpits” where the young bulls hang around and playfight. In doing these things they create lots of bare ground.

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bare ground, important for invertebrates and plants, created by Wisent. ©Miles King

Bare ground provides habitat for a wide range of plants invertebrates, fungi, and the birds and mammals that depend on these things. the Wisent also use regular tracks so have created a network of tracks and bare ground patches of different sizes. They also appear to have abandoned some areas of bare ground they had created, and these were revegetating. And of course they carry seed of plants from one place to another.

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Dune grassland restored by Wisent ©Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some suggest that Wisent was never native to the British Isles during the holocene and therefore should not be considered as part of our extinct fauna, or considered for re-introduction. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – and Wisent remains have been found from Doggerland, the lost realm between Britain and the Continent. Wisent is still perilously rare and most of the surviving animals occur in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, so holding populations in the UK would help in case a disease killed off populations elsewhere. And looking at how Wisent behave in the Netherlands, in what is effectively the same ecosystem as we have, suggests to me that they would be an ideal animal to have in large areas of wildland, where nature is the paramount purpose of that land.

I’m not suggesting that Wisent should be returned to the wilds of Britain, in the way that Otters have been, or Red Kite. But Wisent could be a driving force for creating large areas of wild land  – thousands of hectares, given over to nature, with no agriculture or forestry happening there. If it can happen in the Netherlands, that densely populated, and intensely managed land, then it can definitely happen here.  And the Dutch experience is that the Wisent themselves have created a great deal of new economic activity – people love them and want to come and see them.

We have a huge amount of public land in Britain – some of it has limited or no public access (Military land) so creating large enclosures for Wisent is a real possibility. Could Wisent be walking across Salisbury Plain in the future?

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Kraansvlak is on the edge of a number of urban areas. © Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were very lucky on our trip. As soon as we arrived at the viewing point, the Wisent were there, on the far side of the lake, standing in the water. We watched them for a while then our guides suggested we try and get a closer look. So we made our way around behind them, climbing a dune. From the top we looked down onto the herd, which were just 50m away. They seemed unperturbed, but there were various half jokes about who could run fastest and who would need to be carried, in case they turned on us. But they took no interested in us. Eventually they moved off back down to the lake again. The sound, and the sight, of their walking through the lake, the slow rhythmic splashing, evoked another place and another time. We could have been in Africa on the savannah, or we could have been mesolithic hunters, waiting for our moment to strike, risking our lives to eat meat that day.

Thanks to our guides from Rewilding Europe for a fascinating day, and to Sir Charlie Burrell and everyone at Knepp, for organising the trip.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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42 Responses to Bring back the Bison. or Wisent.

  1. This was fascinating reading. A hopeful image of wisent roaming the British plains! Reminded me of the excitement of knowing wild boar were nearby in the Forest of Dean.

  2. Steve Jones says:

    Great article, Miles. I’ve suggested that Salisbury Plain Training Area – with its 28,000 ha of upright brome dominated chalk grassland and arable reversion, would be a prime candidate for wisent (re)-introduction to military folk in the past. Maybe start just off the TA, within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site – already externally fenced, visitor infrastructure. Obviously you’d need to stick them north of the A303 so they can migrate through Larkfield onto the TA.
    Wisent are an intermediate feeder – mixing browsing of woody vegetation with grazing of herbaceous vegetation, just as you describe. They presumably opened up scrubby areas allowing true grazers – such as aurochs – to maintain larger open plains and create grazing lawns. You describe that facilitation perfectly above in the wisent-domestic cattle interactions. I don’t know if wisent were present in the UK historically, but and damned sure they weren’t if it was wall-to-wall closed canopy forest (in which aurochs would have struggled to maintain viable populations too).

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Steve. We know from historic accounts of the Wisent’s american cousin, the Buffalo, that herds travelled great distances in search of food. It seems difficult to believe that, when the British Isles were connected to continental Europe, that these animals did enter Britain from Doggerland or via the later land bridge.

      The Salisbury Plain Training Area, or indeed other closed military land (Porton) would be ideal for a reintroduction. Imagine the A303 in a tunnel or with green bridges, enabling Wisent to move from one large wildland block to another.

      • Steve Jones says:

        I thoroughly agree, Miles, I was being sarcastic regarding closed canopy forest: it’s quite likely I think that wisent ranged into the UK. In my view, to sustain wisent and aurochs, we’d have had large open or lightly wooded areas much like Salisbury Plain Training Area, the New Forest (both obviously very much maintained in their current state by human activity these days).

        We need a natural experiment – introduce free-ranging populations of wisent (and proto-aurochs), and see happens.

        I’d be slightly wary about starting such an experiment at Porton – I’d rather try it on SPTA, with its less sensitive CG3 and reverted arable. I doubt that wisent alone would create the tight grazed lawns that characterise Porton (although combined with rabbits and re-wilded cattle they would). What message would this send out – one of Europe’s grandest rewilding projects set within the intensive lowlands of the UK, adjacent to a major highway.

        The National Trust owns much of the land directly north of the A303 at Stonehenge, which in turn backs onto MoD (sorry, publicly owned) land, with the RSPB and NE managing areas nearby. What a wonderful nature tourism venue the Stonehenge WHS could become!

        One might also look at Breckland: a huge area co-owned by the Crown Estate, Forestry Commission and MoD (i.e. owned by the public), where the policy is to create a lot more open habitat and where much of the sensitive plant and animal communities could well thrive in the disturbance created by very large herbivores.

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks Steve. I had noticed your ironic remark about closed canopy forest. I think it’s quite possible that there were areas of early Holocene Britain with more closed canopy forest, where large herbivores had been hunted out. That’s not exactly a “natural” situation though.

        I was really surprised that a combination of Wisent, cattle, ponies and a few rabbits, could create some a fine flowery grassland as we saw at Kraansvlak. I wouldnt worry about the close grazed lawns of Porton at all under that grazing regime. I suppose the Wisent might decide they liked the antscape and turn it into a big Bullpit! Yes the Brecklands would also be highly suitable – especially given their importance for open ground specialist plants and inverts.

  3. Phil Eckersley says:

    Great post Miles

  4. Apus apus says:

    Hi Miles

    Just to say that your post EU referendum blogs have been brilliant. But going back to the natural world, I really don’t get the fascination with recreating another OVP. Surely there is too much grazing/browsing pressure already without adding to it with another large herbivore?

    In terms of Britain, this is even more pertinent when you consider that there is no evidence to confirm that Bison was actually here post ice age. Factor in fencing and no carnivores and its a recipe for an unnatural landscape.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Apus.

      I’m not suggesting creating another OVP – Oostvaardersplassen. It’s quite a different place and there are no Wisent there.

      Too much grazing/browsing? There are certainly too many Deer. But then there are no wild Aurochsen, which are extinct.

      As I said in the blog, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And yes, all landscapes are unnatural to a greater or lesser degree. It is as un-natural to have no Aurochsen as it is to have no wolves. What can we do about either? Not much. Having large areas grazed only by wild herbivores is something that I think would be a positive addition to the UK landscapes. Adding in predators would also be helpful. The chances of getting Wisent grazing in large areas in the UK are currently higher than the chances of getting Wolves back – in enclosures or not.

    • Steve Jones says:

      Interesting comments Apus. First, I’d like to see a few more Oostvaardersplassens (OVPs) – I think it’s great, and yes, fascinating – what’s wrong with that?!

      There’s room, even in the UK, for various sorts of conservation landscapes – wildlife-friendly farming, New Forest style ancient cultural landscapes, tightly managed reed-beds, low-intervention landscapes with less predictable dynamics……

      Regarding over-browsing by deer, yes, that’s an issue, particularly with tiny highly fragmented patches of woodland where concentrated browsing is a problem. I don’t think we’d be able to stick bison in tiny fragmented woodland patches that are already over-browsed, so you can relax about that. Bison can only really work in such bigger landscapes – like Breckland, or Salisbury Plain. Under-browsing / grazing is actually a problem in Breckland (Stanta is now tussocky grassland due to MoD mismanagement), and on SPTA (that’s why large areas are dominated by upright brome).

      I see good reason to suppose that the bison range did extend into the UK, and adding an extirpated large grazer into a heavily transformed landscape, as part of a landscape restoration programme, is hardly making the landscape any less natural. And if you think adding bison into the UK is ‘unnatural’, presumably you’d object to fencing and livestock grazing as a conservation management tool too – sheep and domestic cattle are hardly natural.

      • Apus apus says:

        I can’t find any evidence that Bison bonasus (I know that this doesn’t seem to be important for some of you!) has ever lived in Britain. Bison priscus – the steppe bison has though.

        According to this paper –

        http://www.euskomedia.org/PDFAnlt/munibe/aa/200501421428.pdf

        the closest Holocene archaeozoological evidence for Bison bonasus to Britain is in France and Germany. There is no evidence for the Netherlands. It does not include any evidence for Doggerland – do you have details regarding this?

        This means that Bison bonasus will not be classified as a native mammal, but as an introduced one.

        My dislike of the Dutch version of “rewilding”, is that it is one big, ecologically illiterate experiment. The landscape of Europe should be primarily woodland, not open parkland.

        True rewilding should be about functioning ecosystems, where carnivores exert top down influence on both large herbivores and mesopredators. Obviously, large areas of land are needed for this, but at the lower end of the scale, land can become wild again (after a period of restoration if needed) if human influences are minimised or ideally removed completely.

        Rewilding now seems to mean different things to different people, but for me ecosystems driven by high numbers of large, often domestic herbivores in fenced enclosures is not it. This is just an extension of farming driven by the desire to create open landscapes.

  5. Tristan Rapp says:

    Why exactly are we focusing so much on whether or not the animals were present in the Holocene? Maybe there weren’t ever present in Britain during the Holocene, maybe they were, but we have to remember that the early Holocene was in no way the “original” Britain. Modern
    humans had already been present in northern Europe for tens of thousands of years before then, heavily influencing the fauna of the continent, including Britain.

    The last interglacial – the Eemian – was the last period which more or less accurately shows what Europe would have been like today without the influence of modern humans, and back then, Wisent were almost certainly present in Britain(it may have been confirmed, I’m not certain). If Wisents were absent from the islands during the Holocene, it was definitely due to human activity – as you said, we know that they were present in the lands surrounding England back before it became an island, so they were not restricted by geography.

    This whole obsession over the early Holocene seems to me to have driven a whole lot of misconceptions about what the “pristine” Britain was like, including many that even advocates of habitat restoration and rewilding are guilty of. George Monbiot for instance has advocated for the restoration of closed canopy forest across practically the entirety of the isles, claiming it to be the natural landcover most places, but also said that he would like to see experiments with elephant reintroductions. This is despite the fact that closed canopy forest was exclusively widespread during the early Holocene, while elephants were only present in the Eemian, at which point most of the country was covered either in open woodland or savanna, possibly due to the influence of said elephants!

    So yeah, who cares if Wisent were present in Britain within the last 11,000 years? They were before that, they could be again, and judging by the beneficial effects they’ve had on ecosystems pretty much everywhere they’ve been reintroduced, I’d say they certainly should be.

  6. Steve Jones says:

    It’s OK to speculate on what may or may not have been present in the distant past, but we can’t really ever be sure. What we can do is look to the future. Agricultural support is in flux. There’s the real possibility that farming may withdraw from marginal areas, threatening important plant and animal communities that have assembled under historically benign livestock systems. We could attempt to arrest this withdrawal of livestock farming, on the assumption that farmers will wish to keep it up into the future, and in some areas that’ll be the right thing to do. In other areas, attempting to induce people to continue non-viable extensive farming with minimal public payments may not be appropriate. Here, one either allows things to develop in the absence of some grazers, with loss of open habitat specialists, or one could experiment with the (re-)introduction of extirpated wild grazing and browsing animals.

  7. Vulgaris@67 says:

    Whilst generally in favour of rewilding or something at least giving nature a chance to do its own thing the most biodiverse or ‘natural’ landscapes or habitats (however you wish to label them) in Europe bar perhaps those high montane places are the cultural landscapes that still exist: New Forest in UK, Transylvanian hay meadows/wood pastures, the Iberian Dehesas etc. A bigger risk here is the loss of these cultural systems that provide incredible biodiversity in a way that has existed albeit with modifications for a very long time. Humans (partly) left out of the equation strikes me as being somewhat disingenuous particularly as we will still have to feed ourselves and live somewhere as the population increases and land area shrinks with other issues such as sea-level rise! Re-wild but if Knepp is anything to go by the nature conservation sector should look to buy a very large farm in the arable wastes of Wiltshire or similar, (stop wasting money on silly re-introductions of bustards) shove in some cattle, pigs and Exmoor ponies (and beavers) and wait ten years.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Saproxylic. Why set up a false opposition between two good things. Yes of course we must protect, as far as possible, the semi-natural where it is still found across Europe. Many people and organisations are doing this. While it’s important, it isn’t the only approach available to us. In England, we think we still live in a green and pleasant land, whereas in the Netherlands they know they comprehensively trashed their semi-natural landscapes decades ago. Now they are putting back nature into large areas which are there just for nature, and for people to enjoy nature. I think they’re just not in denial to the extent we are. Much of lowland England is devoid of all but the most common wildlife. Why try and recreate a facsimile of the semi-natural there? It’s pointless to my mind.

      Better to do as you suggest, buy up large areas of farmland, and put the Wisent, the wild Boar and the Beavers back.

    • Steve Jones says:

      Vulgaris….interesting stuff. I’ve been working in the Balkans recently and there are huge areas from which very low-intensity farming is withdrawing or will likely withdraw over the coming decade. We’re frantically designing agri-environment packages which we hope may induce some of those farmers to keep going but, frankly, they’re getting on a bit, traditional farming is really hard work, and their kids aren’t keen on farming on poverty-pay-agri-env-support-payments. But we can try. Meanwhile, folks like Rewilding Europe are supporting local civil society organisations to introduce bison to replace withdrawn domestic stock, and signs are quite positive that alternative nature-based livelihoods might just work. I suggest both options – agri-env support and rewilding with nature-based industries – are legitimate and worth a try. I’d certainly rather we attempt to re-establish wild grazing megafauna to areas from which livestock are removed than simply sit back, do nothing, watch those areas turn from species-rich open grassland habitats to closed scrubland and forest, in the knowledge that we drove the big wild grazers to extinction here and didn’t try to put them back when the chance presented itself. Some more forest and scrub would be nice too of course!

      I don’t see how humans are ‘left out of the equation’, even partially, in either scenario – wild landscapes can be good for people, as can farming landscapes, in fact more so if access is better and you’re not getting shouted at by farmers. In my experience, on the Isle of Wight, the least accessible and welcoming areas are those used for farming; the scraps set aside for nature are the areas people tend to go.

      Of course we ‘still have to feed ourselves’, and given that rewilding landscapes are most realistically going to be very marginal, least productive areas, I can’t see famine on the horizon. Besides, these very marginal areas tend to be farmed to access subsidies, not to produce food (I see all around me grasslands that are simply topped off through the year, to keep them farmable and therefore eligible for subsidy). Besides, don’t we throw 50 odd % of food away in the supply chain? What portion of our countryside is farmed to produce waste tip fodder? How much of Cornwall is farmed for cut flowers that’ll last two days after you get them home? How many thousands of hectares are farmed to supply biofuels which will be obsolete once we all switch to electric cars?

      I quite agree that areas to which big wild herbivores can be re-introduced will need to be large. Two very large publicly-owned areas have been mentioned. I’ve not been to Knepp but I gather it’s worth a visit and is producing intriguing results. Seems to me there’s room for more Knepps, New Forests, OVPs, wildlife-friendly farming etc etc – it’s not one to the exclusion of all others.

  8. timbrayford says:

    Perhaps the Wisent could be used instead of domestic cattle to help to conserve the heath at Bouldnor, Isle of Wight ?

  9. Mark Fisher says:

    Well, MIles, you have certainly bought into the enthusiasm for bison of the passive and trophic rewilders (or what is really rewilding without predators) including their need to circumvent any inconvenient evidence that may indicate that bison had no presence in the ecology of a post-glacial Britain, or even in areas like the Kraansvlak in the Netherlands, which of course explains why there is a non-substantiated revisionism being enforced on us to justify their presence there by your hosts. You may also like to consider that the habitat selection identified by stable isotope signature suggests that the European bison had a different habitat selection than the aurochs, and that the overlapping domestic cattle had a different habitat selection to both the aurochs and bison. That is why the fake aurochs of your hosts are not ecological replacements, and why bison would not be an ecological replacement for aurochs in Britain.

    You may also like to consider what is the significance of the lack of supplementary feeding in the Kraansvlak, and which is so often trotted out in defence of a self-serving argument that bison in Eastern Europe are in refuge habitat rather than their natural habitat, which of course must be behind the fences on the the sand dunes of Kraansvlak. Have you ever considered that the supplementary feeding of bison is a means to discourage the free living bison in Eastern Europe from inconveniently straying out into agricultural lands? Since the bison in Kraansvlak have only been there a few years, and have bred only a few times, but are behind fences, then resource limitation will hit them at some future date, and just like the Oostvaardersplassen, we will start to see animals suffering from starvation, and there will be long discussions about this being a “natural” process, that wild herbivores do get cut off from being able to migrate to new food sources, and anyway, we can cull them in a way that mimics predator control. The endless justifications for human enforced animal suffering.

    You are wise enough to suggest a limit to the role for bison in Britain to conservation grazing, but as is universally recognised, your hosts motivation for their advocacy for bison – and feral horses and fake aurochs – is for the sensationalism of the gawp factor as they create more open air zoos behind fences like the Oostvaardersplassen. Ecological literacy rarely comes into their calculations – except inadvertently when they bemoaned the fact that packs of feral dogs had been picking off the new born of the bison they plonked in Romania. I wonder how they would react if wolves, which are on the doorstep of reinstating themselves into the Netherlands, eventually reached the Kraansvlak, hopped over the fence and took a few young bison as they dispersed all the rest around the enclosure. You could almost say it would be wild nature in action if it wasn’t for the fences that trap the bison in.

    Its like the wildlife trusts that advertise a new conservation grazing scheme by saying come and see the sheep/ponies/cattle or even water buffalo. Do we want our children of the future to see only domestic livestock, or non-native species, and think of them as wild nature? Are we now to badge all conservation grazing – which pretty much is nature conservation in Britain – as living wild nature? What is experimental about a “rewilding” scheme based on herbivores when the preponderance of every shape and size of conservation grazing scheme suggests that it is way past being an experiment any more? Can we resist the constant onslaught of what is an unproven and ecologically illiterate theory about wild landscapes that emanates from the Netherlands? And anyway, wont the subsidy funding on which these experiments/conservation grazing rely be uncertain after withdrawal from the EU?

    This is what is more important. I’ve just written about the implications for wild land here on withdrawal from the EU. Fortunately the provisions in the Habitats Directive for the requirement to study the desirability of re-introducing former native species, such as the predators needed to upgrade our trophic occupancy, and give them strict protection, can also unsurprisingly be found in the Bern Convention, a supranational agreement on nature protection that preceded the Habitats Directive, and which we are party to. This gives continuity to the hope for an external influence for wilder land here.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mark, for your measured response. I suppose the difference is between aims to bring extinct animals back “to the wild” ie living beyond enclosures, as opposed to bringing them back at all, and for what purpose. As I said in the piece, we have a much greater chance of Wisent grazing in large “natural” areas than Wolves roaming wild in Britain – at least in the medium term future.

    • Steve Jones says:

      Interesting stuff Mark. Just a couple of questions (more than likely naive, so take them in that spirit) in response:

      You say:

      ”You may also like to consider that the habitat selection identified by stable isotope signature suggests that the European bison had a different habitat selection than the aurochs, and that the overlapping domestic cattle had a different habitat selection to both the aurochs and bison. That is why the fake aurochs of your hosts are not ecological replacements, and why bison would not be an ecological replacement for aurochs in Britain.”

      Haven’t we known for a long time that bison are intermediate feeders and aurochs were likely grazers? So we’ve always known (or inferred from evidence) that they selected different habitats or rather had different feeding strategies? My guess is that both species were found in the same places at least in some parts of Europe – their areas of occupancy coincided – with bison breaking up scrubby vegetation and aurochs grazing open areas. They ‘probably’ occurred together in multi-species assemblages. In that context, who’s claimed that bison are an ecological replacement for aurochs?

      You say:

      ”….self-serving argument that bison in Eastern Europe are in refuge habitat rather than their natural habitat…”

      I don’t know if the folks of Kraansvlak are being ‘self-serving’ and would rather not question people’s personal motives. I do know though that the jury is still out as to whether closed forest is the preferred habitat of European bison. The peer-reviewed evidence isn’t conclusive. What I do know is that similar large bodied species appear to be confined to sub-optimal habitat elsewhere by human activity. In Asia, for example, banteng avoid open grassy plains when heavily disturbed, but spend a disproportionate amount of time (i.e. disproportionate in relation to habitat availability) in open areas when less disturbed – suggesting they like open areas but are hemmed into wooded areas by human activity. Most of the video footage I see of European bison is in open, grassy habitat. That could be simply because it’s easier to film them in open habitat – but they are actually also in those open habitats, else they wouldn’t be filmed there. Historically, I speculate that bison occupied the more wooded open areas, with aurochs in the less wooded open areas, and probably formed mixed herds in favourable areas. The vast numbers of other open habitat species probably also occurred in open habitats.

      You say:

      ”…their need to circumvent any inconvenient evidence that may indicate that bison had no presence in the ecology of a post-glacial Britain, or even in areas like the Kraansvlak in the Netherlands…”

      I do think that if bison were present in post-glacial Britain we ought to have found some evidence of it by now. But we do know they were present in the Netherlands, right? Why then would they have been absent from areas like Kraansvlak?

      You say:

      ”And anyway, wont the subsidy funding on which these experiments/conservation grazing rely be uncertain after withdrawal from the EU?”

      Yes, absolutely – to the extent that conservation grazing is dependent on EU subsidies. An awful lot of conservation management is equally vulnerable. CAP financed agri-environment schemes are complicated with their tight prescriptions and numerous options, with high transaction costs in reaching agreements, administering them, and monitoring compliance. Large scale rewilding, with less tightly prescribed management, lacking the menus of options that characterise Stewardship-type schemes, would presumably carry lower transaction costs (but higher capital costs if one needs to purchase land).

      I’ve used the term fake aurochs (and proto-aurochs) too, Mark. We know that people are currently attempting to ‘re-create’ animals which they say will match as closely as possible aurochs traits. No one can stop people doing this work, and in a decade or so we face the prospect of having available something that is probably ecological closer to aurochs than your average domestic cattle. Given these two options – domestic cattle and fake-aurochs – which should one chose for a large-scale rewilding project where one wants to include grazing animals?

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Steve. On a pedantic note – Ibelieve the word for more than one Aurochs is Aurochsen – like Oxen for more than one Ox.

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Steve, it is not useful to guess, or take speculation too far, in relation to issues that may rebound through ecosystems.

        It was George Monbiot who, on my explaining the archaeozoological evidence of bison distribution, wrote back that even so, it would be useful to have a large grazer like the bison available for herbivore pressure in the UK. He is just one amongst others.

        That archaeozoological evidence doesn’t show a presence of bison in the Netherlands.

        I could take you through the series of journal articles relating to the dispute around whether bison are a refuge species, and which shows that the proposers of this theory were less than candid at the outset about their motivation and involvement with the Kraansvlak, but you can read about that here http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/articles/bison_habitat.htm

        You can also read there why I think breeding in wildness and original habitat selection from primitive cattle is an anthropogenic action that lacks any means of evaluation. But worse than that, there is a now constant special pleading that these fake aurochs be given native status under national legislation.

        You say:
        “….adding an extirpated large grazer into a heavily transformed landscape, as part of a landscape restoration programme, is hardly making the landscape any less natural”

        So why do you want me to choose between domestic cattle and fake aurochs when the first priority in nature-led ecological wilding is to have a high aspiration for a return of the natural structural vegetation of Britain, Even a tree has to be reintroduced into areas of our most depauperate landscapes where none remain in refuge, before we even think about herbivores and carnivores. As I said to George, there is no point having one of his straight tusked elephants around if there are no trees for it to push over. It is, as you are fond of saying, about trophic upgrading, but at ALL levels.

  10. Steve Jones says:

    Hi Mark
    You’re right of course that it’s not wise to guess / speculate if the ecological consequences of getting things wrong are severe. My first reaction to what you say George Monbiot said to you if that I don’t agree him – although he may be able to convince me otherwise. I stand corrected regarding evidence of bison status in the Netherlands.

    There’s no need to take me through the literature regarding whether or not bison have held on in sub-optimal habitat. I’ve read it all, and I don’t think we yet have a definitive answer. Experimental ecology can help us here: establish populations in landscapes comprised of a mix of closed and open canopy woodland and grassland, and see how bison use the landscape. I think this is what some of the projects such as those supported by Rewilding Europe are doing.

    I really don’t know whether the authors of any of these articles were being ‘candid’ or had hidden motives and would rather stick to a positive debate about ecology and conservation.

    When you say ”…the first priority in nature-led ecological wilding is to have a high aspiration for a return of the natural structural vegetation of Britain” I’m left wondering by whose authority has this first priority been dictated? Or are you just telling me what you think the first priority should be? The structure of vegetation is greatly influenced by a great many factors, including top down, bottom up and vertical trophic interactions. Big herbivores have a key role in influencing vegetation, as do top and meso-predators (indirectly). So I reckon a top priority is to enable plant communities to develop as far as possible in the presence of native animals.

    • Miles King says:

      Wisent were known in historic times from France and Germany. How did they know to stop at the Dutch border (which only came into being in 1433), and turn back?

  11. peakaboo says:

    So wisent may or may not have been here (probably not if you are interested in evidence, as I am), aurochsen ain’t coming back, except in some Frankensteins monster kind of way. This leaves us with deer species, roe and red as the natives. But why is no-one bigging up elk (moose)? We know that they definitely were here, maybe as recently as 1000 years ago. We obviously do need the carnivores also to chase them around, but I don’t see why bison should get the nod above Elk.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Dan. If you’re interested in evidence, then you know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is a lot of this in rewilding – take 8 pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw, then tell everyone what the picture is.

      I have mentioned Elk in previous posts eg https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/what-are-we-waiting-for/?iframe=true&preview=true. This one was about Wisent.

      • peakaboo says:

        Miles. “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Isn’t that a bit like saying “I believe in dragons?” I prefer to go with what we know to be true (or at least likely). If a wisent skull turns up tomorrow, I will quite happily go with it….

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Dan. Believing in dragons, is more like believing that Wisent were not present in Britain, because there is no evidence for either position. I remain agnostic about the presence of Wisent in Britain, but I think there are good reasons to bring them (back) here, as I outlined in the post.

      • Steve Jones says:

        Peakaboo – the cautionary phrase ‘absence of evidence in not evidence of absence’ is something drummed into undergrad science students the world over. It urges one to be open minded as conventional wisdom and paradigms can be shifted by the emergence of new evidence. Just because no one had described a saola until it was ‘discovered’ a decade or so ago, it wasn’t absent – it’s just no one had discovered it. I’m open-minded as to whether bison reached the UK, but am surprised we’ve not yet found evidence of presence if it was indeed here given finds of other species. I was equally surprised that saola has eluded detection for so long.

      • Miles King says:

        It’s also worth noting that, apparently, fragments of bone from Auroch can be very difficult to distinguish from Wisent bone fragments, unless a cranium has been found. http://www.zoogdierwinkel.nl/sites/default/files/imce/nieuwesite/Winkel/pdf%20download/Lutra%2058(1)_Van%20Vuure_2015.pdf

    • Steve Jones says:

      Peakaboo….. I think if people have extirpated a given species from an area and the situation has genuinely changed such that the re-establishment of a viable population is feasible, then they should go on the list. Absolutely we should aim to re-establish all trophic levels when feasible. I’m personally more optimistic than some about what may be possible in the coming decades. Obviously aurochsen aren’t coming back, but crazy people are attempting to come up with bovids that share their traits (feeding, social behaviour etc, not that these are known for sure). We do face the reality of agricultural withdrawal from some marginal farmed areas, and agri-environment support may not induce farmers to stay in all such areas in the long term. These areas often support high open ground biodiversity. Do we sit back and allow such areas to succeed to scrub then woodland in the absence of the grazers we drove to extinction, or do we use fake aurochsen as a very imperfect substitute? Are bovids bred to replicate as far as possible (assumed) aurochsen traits any worse than domestic livestock which don’t share such traits? Maybe the answer is that yes, we do step back and allow areas to succeed to scrub and woodland, and maybe that’s what would happen in the presence of aurochsen type grazers and the various browsers.

  12. Dave Blake says:

    As someone who lives very close to, spends a lot of time on and is fairly familiar with the Salisbury Plain Training Area, I would just like say what a massively bad idea it would be to use the area for an experimental release of wisent. The practicalities are insuperable. To gain the licence, it would have to be a fenced area and fences are not conducive to the military training in the area. The military use is not always taken seriously enough by nature conservationists: SPTA is a vital national training resource and the nature conservation has to go hand in hand with it to be sustainable.
    The areas of Wiltshire around Salisbury Plain may look to some like an ‘arable wilderness’ but to other people it is ‘home’ or ‘our farm’ and if you work in these areas in nature conservation (as I do) then you are well advised to take heed of those views.
    Getting wisent into the UK – whether it’s a return or an introduction does not bother me at all – would be great from all kinds of view points, but there are easier places to do this than SPTA.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Dave. I was wondering about invisible fencing instead of the physical variety. The Wisent at Kraansvlak seem pretty unperturbed by their satellite tracking collars.

    • Steve Jones says:

      I’ve lived next to and worked on SPTA too. There are areas of fenced MoD land at the edges. You’re right that fencing within the core areas isn’t going to happen. They were attempting to get cattle grazing into the centre of the plain last time I worked there – all sorts of options were discussed by DE and range staff. Will mechanised kit used at SPTA be obsolete as ground warfare increasingly makes use of remote (air and ground) technologies? Views vary among those who live and work in the Wessex downs, quite naturally. Given that you’re relaxed about wisent in the UK, do you think something within the Stonehenge WHS might be more feasible?

  13. Miles King says:

    A recent paper, using stable isotope analysis, supports the idea that Wisent are not a forest species. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4324907/

    • Steve Jones says:

      I’d not seen this paper, which is annoying. I wholeheartedly agree with the Rewilding Europe lot on this front: the best way to work out what sort of habitat wisent use is to conduct experimental releases and see what sorts of habitat they use, given a choice. If you established populations in landscapes comprised of undisturbed woodland, broken scrub and open grassy habitat, and they chose to stay within the woodland, and this was replicated at a few sites, then that’d provide evidence that they are indeed a woodland species. Video footage of wisent in both woodland and (more often) open grassy habitat suggests to me that they quite like open grassy habitats. Wisent are an intermediate feeder – browsing and grazing – so presumably like habitats with both woody and grassy vegetation. Aurochsen are a true grazer and so there must have been an awful lot of grass biomass to sustain them. I don’t buy the claim that aurochsen would have been confined to floodplains, alongside European water buffalo.

    • Mark Fisher says:

      Not necessarily, Miles. As a proxy indicator, there is less depleted δ13C abundance in drier areas compared to wetter, and plants growing in more open habitats show less depleted δ13C . So what is that graphic showing? If you just go on an openness, then would you agree with the implication that aurochs was a forest animal? Alternately, if you interpret the depleted δ13C abundance being about wet and dryness, then it shows aurochs and moose being wetland animals, and bison being dryland animals. So what can you firmly conclude from the graph, other than the higher δ15N values in grasses, sedges compared to shrubs, trees suggesting that bison were an intermediate feeder between moose and aurochs?

      This thing about whether a species was a forest or open landscape species really is a stale argument (and not one I made above!). The real question – put in a simplified way – is whether there were a variety of open spaces that were in a matrix of predominantly woodland at differing densities dependent on a range of biotic, edaphic and climatic factors, or were there islands of woodland in a predominantly open matrix.

      The definitive evidence for either is hard to get, especially for the latter, but just wishing it was the latter wont make it true, in the same way that wishing a few fossil bison bones were mistaken for aurochs. Things like that can happen – such as the distinction between Eurasian and Iberian lynx, and which led to a revision in understanding about the historical distribution of the two species. But you have to ask yourself why it is that there is so much pressure to accept a wider distribution of bison than is established? Could it have something to do with a “one-club” policy of dumping herbivores into landscapes everywhere, and calling it “rewilding”?

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Mark. Yes, the evidence in the paper points towards Bison as a mixed feeder preferring the open end of the spectrum you describe. As it’s unlikely we will ever “know” for sure, we can only take it as another factor contributing to decisions about what we want to do, to benefit nature in all its forms. I’m not aware there is really any pressure to accept a wider native distribution for Wisent – certainly not to include the British Isles. Perhaps that argument has been made in the Netherlands. For me, it doesn’t really matter whether Wisent was or was not native here before it was extirpated. Giant Deer, Straight-tusked elephants, Hippos, Rhinos, Aurochs and wild horses all played their part shaping the landscape in the past and they have all gone. So, in their absence, it seems to me that Wisent could perform a useful ecological function in British landscapes – and we could contribute to conserving the species by having it here. As RE has found at Kraansvlak, the density and type of grazing animals will dictate the balance between closed canopy, open savannah, scrub and grassland and it appears that this can be fine tuned to create the desired mosaic. As this would only be likely to happen in a few places in the UK, it’s not going to replace purer forms of rewilding, or indeed the conservation of the semi-natural. But it will contribute to the whole effort and it may well lead to a great understanding, and appreciation of nature – the gawp factor, if you like.

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