A bison reintroduction project has welcomed a new cohort of grazing animals that ecologists say will help shape the landscape and improve biodiversity.
Longhorn cattle, Iron Age hogs and Exmoor ponies have joined the bison herd at the Wilder Blean Project in Kent ahead of World Rewilding Day on March 20.
Called conservation grazers, the animals were introduced to manage the forest naturally and are expected to help make room for plant species while they forage.
It follows the reintroduction of three female bison to the woods north of Canterbury last July, followed by a bull imported from Germany and the first calf to be born in Britain in thousands of years.
Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust, which jointly manage the project, said the bison began improving habitat as soon as they arrived, debarking trees and creating deadwood that provides homes for bats and invertebrates.
They also create corridors through the forest by trampling down bracken and eating brambles, and have been observed dust-bathing, leading to sand pits being loved by burrowing insects.
Area Manager Alison Ruyter said: “Wild grazing is about using native wild livestock breeds to mimic what mega-herbivores would have done in the past, when wild horses, aurochs and bison roamed the land.
“They were inseparable from their habitats and we want to emulate that with the animals we now have.”
The public will be able to walk among the grazing cows and ponies, but the bison will remain fenced off due to legal requirements, project leaders said.
Three ponies and four longhorns will roam freely in one section of the forest, while the bison and three other ponies will be in a second section.
The four Iron Age pigs will roam between the two areas while traditional forest management continues in a third part of the forest.
There are plans, pending Council approval, to build bison tunnels which would allow the horned herbivores to roam more freely in the forest while also providing a vantage point for visitors.
Mark Habben of the Wildwood Trust said: “We had to overcome many hurdles to find and bring the bison here.
“Now they’re settled into their herd and it’s great to see them being joined by all the other species that are roaming the forest doing their important work.
“This is a really exciting phase for this innovative project. There will be a lot of research and observation in the years to come and we will be looking at how their behavior compares and their impact on the environment.”
Grazing animals are monitored for their impact on the environment, with forest managers collecting data on soil, insect numbers and vegetation structure.
They are designed to promote biodiversity and bio-richness, and the monitoring program will provide scientific evidence of the value of nature-based solutions, project managers said.
Kora Kunzmann of the Kent Wildlife Trust said: “What is most exciting about what is arguably one of the UK’s largest ecological monitoring schemes is that it is an experimental approach.
“Not only will we be able to demonstrate what is changing and how it is changing over time, but we will also be able to compare the effects of bison’s unique behavior and ecology with those of a similarly sized herbivore and with an area.” without comparing grazing impacts whatsoever.”