A bison regeneration project has welcomed a new cohort of grazing animals that conservationists say will help shape the landscape and improve biodiversity.
Longhorn cattle, Iron Age pigs and Exmoor ponies have joined the Wilder Blean Project bison herd in Kent ahead of World Regeneration Day on March 20.
Called conservation grazers, the animals were introduced as a way to naturally manage the forest and should help clear space for plant species as they forage for food.
It follows the reintroduction of three female bison last July to the woods north of Canterbury, followed by a bull imported from Germany and the first calf born in the UK in thousands of years.
Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust, which jointly manage the project, said bison immediately began improving habitat upon arrival by debarking trees and creating deadwood, which is home to bats and invertebrates.
They also create corridors through the forest by trampling ferns and eating brambles and have been seen to take dust baths, making sandboxes popular with burrowing insects.
Area manager Alison Ruyter said: “Wild grazing is the use of native wild cattle breeds to mimic the things mega-herbivores would have done in the past when wild horses, aurochs and bison roamed the country.
“They were inextricably linked to their habitats and we want to emulate that using the animals we have now.”
The public will be able to walk among the grazing cattle and ponies, but the bison will remain fenced in due to legislative requirements, project officials said.
Three ponies and four longhorn cattle will be free in one part of the forest, while bison and three other ponies will be in a second area.
The four Iron Age pigs will move between the two areas while traditional forest management will continue in a third of the forest.
There are plans, pending council approval, to build buffalo tunnels, which would allow horned herbivores to roam more freely in the forest while providing a vantage point for visitors.
Mark Habben of the Wildwood Trust said: ‘We had to jump through a lot of hurdles to find the bison and get them here.
“Now that they’re settled and in their herd, it’s great to see them joined by all the other species that roam the forest doing their important work.
“This is a really exciting step for this innovative project. There will be a lot of research and observation in the years to come and we will look at how their behaviors compare and the impact they have on the environment.
Grazers will be monitored for their effect on the environment, with forest managers collecting data on soil, insect numbers and vegetation structure.
They are expected to boost biodiversity and bioabundance and the monitoring program will provide scientific evidence of the value of nature-based solutions, project officials said.
Kora Kunzmann from the Kent Wildlife Trust said: “The most exciting part of what has to be one of the UK’s largest ecological monitoring programs is that it is an experimental approach.
“Not only will we be able to prove what changes over time and how it changes, but we will also be able to compare the impact of bison’s unique behavior and ecology to that of a similarly sized herbivore and to an area that has no grazing impact whatsoever.