A baby bison has been born in the UK for the first time in millennia as part of a groundbreaking rewilding project.
The happy surprise was discovered by rangers carrying out checks on a herd of bison in West Blean and Thornden Woods, near Canterbury this month.
The calf’s mother and two other female bison were released into the woodland back in July as part of a wilding initiative between Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust, to combat the climate and biodiversity crises.
Bison conceal their pregnancies to avoid being hunted by predators and rangers were unaware of the impending arrival at the time.
"When the bison took their first steps into the wild just weeks ago, it was hard to imagine that anything could come close to the elation we felt in that moment," Mark Habben, Director of Zoo Operations at the Wildwood Trust says.
“But here we are celebrating the arrival of a bison calf.”
How do bison help biodiversity?
These mighty cattle stand out for their size and that's what makes them so useful in controlling their habitat.
"So European bison are generally referred to as mega herbivores. They're the biggest land animal of Europe. And because of their size and because of their behaviours, they have an enormous impact on the environment. They're ecological engineers really," says Paul Whitfield, director general of Wildwood Trust.
“There's a climate crisis, there's a biodiversity crisis, and particularly in the UK, biodiversity levels are exceptionally low. We're not in a good state and releasing bison as an ecosystem engineer will help reverse that situation.
"The bison will graze, they'll browse, they'll rub up against the trees and they'll fell a lot of the non-native deadwood and some of the native trees as well, creating clearings, creating more diverse habitats in which wildlife can thrive."
When did wild bison go extinct in Europe?
Despite weighing nearly a tonne each, these bison are an endangered species and their reintroduction into the wild is a critical project for restoring numbers.
The animals were hunted to extinction in the wild, to the extent that by the 1930s no wild bison existed in Europe.
The steppe bison is believed to have lived in the UK until around 6,000 years ago when changes in habitat and hunting led to their global extinction. The European bison that were released in Kent as part of this rewilding project are a descendant of the species and its closest living relative.
"[In] 1927 the last European bison in the world was killed in the wild. And that's actually tragic. But there were 50 of those animals [that] remained in zoological collections, which then led to a very extensive and intensive breeding effort, which has got us to the point we're at today with over eight and a half thousand European bison in the world," says Habben.
What will happen to the bison?
The female animals will be joined by a bull from Germany in the next few months, where it is hoped they will breed and start a new herd in the south of England.
The bison currently have 50 hectares of space to roam, but this will be increased dramatically as the project progresses.
By grazing and browsing on young saplings the bison create a naturally biodiverse landscape.
Wild pigs and ponies may later be introduced to further enhance the natural habitat of West Blean and Thornden woods.
Watch the video above to see the newest addition to the herd.