This post is by Evan Bowen-Jones, chief executive of the Kent Wildlife Trust.
With the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15, 2022 was a big year for international conservation. That historic deal has the potential to transform the UK’s position from one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world and to rebuild our ecosystems.
At Kent Wildlife Trust, we are already committed to restore 30 per cent of nature across land and sea. But, although the UK signed the global deal and indicates a similar level of ambition its new Environmental Improvement Plan, recent guidance on Local Nature Recovery Networks lacks the intent to meet the targets.
What we should be seeing are clear statements about transforming national parks from sheep-grazed deserts into vibrant, nature rich ecosystems. There should be financial support for conservation to move from micromanaging small pockets of land for a few species to delivering large scale habitat restoration to boost climate adaptation and resilience, via locking in carbon, improving water quality, reducing flood risk and maintaining pollination for food production.
There should be cross party commitment to ensure nature is no longer seen as a free resource to exploit but is instead valued as a survival mechanism.
Bison are ecosystem engineers
Last year was also a big year for UK conservation as we at Kent Wildlife Trust introduced European bison into the Blean Woods landscape.
This project aims to demonstrate how to make landscapes more resilient, biodiverse and nature abundant by using bison as ecosystem ‘engineers’. This keystone species helps to restart natural processes that benefit a multitude of other species, both those present and coming our way courtesy of a changing climate. They will help to maximise the chance for our habitats to adapt and continue to function.
This is a replicable throughout the UK. Studies across the world demonstrate that wilding (we don’t say ‘rewilding’ because, for us, it’s about going forwards), courtesy of keystone, ecosystem engineer species which restore and maintain habitats to lock up more carbon. But to do more of this in the UK we have to fundamentally rethink our relationship with wild animals. The bison is an excellent ambassador for change.
Roads get in the way
The IUCN’s Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group describes the impact of infrastructure, including roads, as an ‘epidemic of fragmentation’, creating habitat islands at increased risk from limited genetic diversity, diseases, fires and floods, limiting animals’ ability to migrate as the climate changes. It states that, without ‘ecological connectivity’, protected areas are virtually useless.
To demonstrate the problem, in our Wilder Blean project we need to get the bison in our West Blean reserve across footpaths (we offer people the chance to sponsor one of the UK’s first bison bridges ), a minor road and a motorway, into our South Blean reserve, so they can provide ecological dynamism across the full 12km2 of habitat theoretically available to them.
We have to dismantle the bureaucratic and financial barriers to addressing this connectivity in the UK with the lack of green bridges or equivalent road crossing infrastructure. And, through our project, we are starting to work with National Highways, to challenge their standard methods for determining ’feasibility’, so that, by the time the bison reach the motorway, we might just be able to get them across it.
Bison, like red deer, shouldn’t be classified as dangerous
However, to get the bison across the intervening land, first we need to bring down the costs and barriers because they, along with other keystone species, like wild boar and lynx, are listed under the Dangerous Wild Animal Act (DWA). This was originally intended to prevent uncontrolled ownership of animals like lions. It wasn’t meant to apply to wild releases of native species (or proxies like bison). In its current form, our bison project with the Wildwood Trust has cost a million pounds in extra fencing to separate the public from animals that are no more dangerous than domestic cattle and less dangerous that pet dogs.
According to the letter of the law, the DWA has already been breached, as wild boar roam the Forest of Dean and red deer mix with the public in Richmond Park. This antiquated legislation must be reformed so that bison, boar, deer, and other formerly native species are removed from the classification. If it isn’t, there’s no economically feasible way of getting our bison as far as the motorway, let alone across it.
Wilder Blean is a demonstration project. We are actively showing what has to change to meet the scale of ambition required from UK conservation. The bison can help to deliver on our national and international commitments on climate and nature. And they engage people. We recently hosted the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment, and the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee who are looking into the species reintroductions in West Blean. We were able to show them first hand the need to reform the Dangerous Wild Animals Act and the other limitations to scaling up the use of bison as conservation grazers.
We need to bring all the tools in the box to bear to maintain a safe environment for people now that climate change is upon us. Bison can lead the way.