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  • Sally Smith, Kent Wildlife Trust

Winning BIG – the importance of championing innovative solutions to combat the biodiversity crisis

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and we are losing species at an alarming rate and bold steps are needed to change our fate.

We need to radically change the way we think about conservation if we are to stand a chance in creating a country that is resilient to climate change and encourages the restoration of nature allowing wildlife to thrive. Over the last few years, Kent Wildlife Trust has partnered with Wildwood Trust to do just that, and one of the most notable projects has been Wilder Blean – delivered on one of Kent Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserves.

Introducing bison the “ecosystem engineers”

Part of this ground-breaking initiative involves using wild European bison as a nature-based solution to woodland management. Through their natural behaviours the bison shape the habitat around them, we call them ecosystem engineers! They create standing deadwood, which becomes a home for bats and invertebrates, they dust-bathe and the bathing sites they make draw burrowing insects. Even their fur helps to create life as it is used by birds to insulate their nests.

European Bison are a huge conservation success story, not only for their unique behaviour in helping nature thrive, but also for their sheer existence! After WWI they were on the cusp of extinction with less than 100 in private collections in zoos. From that, 12 bison were brought together to save the species, and remarkably today there are over 9,000 of them, they could save themselves, now can they help to save our declining wildlife?

A year in a nutshell

After a lot of work from both charities and a grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery’s Dream Fund in July 2022, we looked on alongside the world’s media as three bison were released into Kent Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve at West Blean and Thornden Woods, just outside of Canterbury, Kent.

The trio quickly got to work, de-barking trees, dust-bathing and opening up corridors through thick vegetation and bringing light to the woodland floor. By August we observed dung-beetle larva in their droppings, by September we had our first bison calf (when one of the females unexpectedly gave birth) and by December the herd was completed when the bull arrived from Germany. We now excitedly await the results from our extensive monitoring programme to see what else has changed.

The next step

We are now turning our attention to the next phase of the project, we need to connect our landscape for nature and for the bison herd. The creation of four bison bridges will give the herd full access to 200 hectares of woodland and construction begins on these in the spring. This is a huge engineering project and we welcome inquiries from businesses interested in being part of this innovative project and helping us deliver this phase.

The wider landscape is also very much on the forefront of our minds as we work with other charities and landowners in the area to connect our fragmented woodlands starting with the Blean complex, a zoned landscape with nature at its heart for healthy communities and a thriving green economy.

The Wilder Blean Initiative was never intended to be a curiosity in a corner of Kent, we have now shared our experiences with other organisations and advocated for change in legislation so it can act as a Blueprint for change and others can replicate it with similar projects.

The Big Biodiversity Challenge Awards

We were delighted to not only be short-listed for the Big Biodiversity Challenge but also bowled over to be named winners of the Innovation category. Viewing the finalists filled me with hope for a better future. The expertise and passion that is being channeled into ensuring we grow with nature in mind is reassuring and highlights we are heading in the right direction.

The Wilder Blean Initiative has been showcased in an arena where people can see a local project having a BIG impact nationally and demonstrates that as a nation we are not done yet – we can work together to change our destiny and create a landscape where we can co-exist with nature and become more resilient to climate change. If I could sum up Wilder Blean and all of the BIG Challenge finalists in one word, it would be “hope.”

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