As It Happens

Bison rangers wanted to oversee U.K. herd — no bison experience necessary

A small group of wild, European bison will be introduced to a woodland reserve in England, and the group overseeing the project is looking for two rangers to manage the herd, no previous experience required.

Wild herd of European bison will be U.K.'s first in about 6,000 years

European bison, like this one, will be introduced to roam in the wild in the Blean woods near Canterbury, England, next spring. This bison is one of two males in captivity at the Wildwood Trust. (Tom Cawdron)

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It's a job in the great outdoors that doesn't require applicants to have done it before, but the successful candidates will need to be comfortable with horns, hooves and fur.

A conservation project in England is seeking to hire two rangers to oversee a small herd of four to 10 European bison that will be introduced to the ancient Blean Woods near Canterbury in the spring of 2022. The area hasn't seen bison roaming the wild for an estimated 6,000 years. 

Stan Smith is the wilder landscapes manager at the Kent Wildlife Trust, a group that has partnered with the Wildwood Trust to create the Wilder Blean project to reintroduce the bison. He hopes the initiative will increase ecological diversity there and is looking for humans to help make it happen. 

"We're not expecting people to have bison experience in the U.K., that's for sure, because you couldn't get any yet. There aren't any here," he told As It Happens host Carol Off from Hastings, England. 

"But what we're looking for in people is somebody who has a really good sort of empathy with animals, that they're probably used to managing large grazing herbivores, things like cattle or horses, and somebody who really understands ... the ecology of the area," he said.

The West Blean Woods will be home to the bison herd, one of the biggest areas of ancient woodland in the United Kingdom, according to the Kent Wildlife Trust. (Ray Lewis)

Smith says that previously, the area would have been home to the steppe bison, which is extinct. 

The new bison herd will have about 200 hectares of land to graze — about half of the woodland's 400 hectares. They'll be kept in by an electric fence, according to Smith.

"It's a really nice big size of woodland, one of our largest areas of ancient woodland that we still have ... in the south of England," said Smith.

Bison are 'ecosystem engineers'

The hope is that the animals will benefit the woodland's ecosystem through their natural grazing behaviours.

Smith says bison are natural "ecosystem engineers" that modify their habitats just by being there.

They also obviously produce a lot of dung. And that's fantastic for invertebrates and for fungi.- Stan Smith, Kent Wildlife Trust

"They are Europe's largest remaining land mammal and ... they love to do things like eat bark off trees, which can sort of selectively kill off certain trees, allowing more light to the woodland floor — the sort of thing that we try to do with chainsaws quite frequently," said Smith.

"They also obviously produce a lot of dung. And that's fantastic for invertebrates and for fungi and things like that," he said. 

The bison may also benefit a type of woodland butterfly, the Heath Fritillary, which emerges in late spring and early summer and relies on a plant called the common cow-wheat for food.

Smith explained that the plant requires freshly-cleared woodland areas to grow, which the bison could provide through grazing on vegetation and stripping bark.

"So you've got Europe's largest land mammal having a beneficial impact on this on this tiny, tiny little butterfly," he said. 

The Netherlands have had wild bison for about 15 years now, Smith says, and he personally noticed a huge improvement in habitat health when he visited bison projects there.

"You just can't help but notice the birdsong that's there ... the mushrooms that are growing everywhere and the lizards and reptiles that are all around, " he said.

Bison at Slikken van de Heen Nature Reserve in Zeeland, Netherlands. (Amanda Fegan)

Dung samples key to herd management

A key part of the job for the rangers will be to keep the animals wild.

"We want them to be behaving entirely naturally and not [become] used to humans," said Smith.

The bison managers will monitor the animals from a distance, collecting dung samples to assess their health without approaching them. Smith said the managers will have to track and follow the herd to keep up with what they're doing and where they're going.

Smith says they are starting small at first to make sure the bison will have enough food year-round.

"That way we can really test the impact that they're having on the environment and tweak things as we go along if we have to," he said.

He also noted that bison breed slowly, at most one calf per female, per year, so they don't expect the herd size to balloon rapidly — one of many factors he says has helped foster support for the project locally. 

"Everyone's actually very, very happy with it. It seems everyone's really excited to see the bison come." 

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.