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WATCH: Could bison soon be roaming wild again in East Anglia?

PUBLISHED: 17:03 01 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:10 01 March 2019

European Bison. Photo: Grzegorz Chrupala/Wikimedia

European Bison. Photo: Grzegorz Chrupala/Wikimedia

Grzegorz Chrupala/Wikimedia

Wild bison could soon be reintroduced to East Anglia under an ambitious “re-wilding” project which aims to recreate natural ecosystems at Fritton Lake, within the Somerleyton Estate.

Hugh Somerleyton and grazing expert Leo Linnartz pictured on land earmarked for the re-wilding project at Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris HillHugh Somerleyton and grazing expert Leo Linnartz pictured on land earmarked for the re-wilding project at Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris Hill

Imagine a tangled wilderness, with bison roaming wild alongside ponies and deer in forest-fringed meadows, free from the interference of mankind.

It might sound like a scene from a prehistoric picture book – but it is one which an East Anglian landowner is determined to recreate.

Hugh Somerleyton’s “re-wilding” project at the Somerleyton Estate, near Lowestoft, focuses on 1,000 acres of land surrounding Fritton Lake.

Much of the ambitious transformation is already under way on this mosaic of heath, mature woodland and alder carr, along with former arable land now left to gradually revert to its natural state.

The re-wilding project at Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate.The re-wilding project at Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate.

But the management of these areas still relies on manpower and machinery so, to create a completely wild ecosystem with maximum benefits for biodiversity, the next phase of the project is crucial – to bring in large grazing animals.

And that could mean the introduction of water buffalo or the largest European land mammal, the bison.

The idea is that these huge herbivores will act as natural landscape engineers – grazing, browsing and bark-stripping to create space for smaller animals to thrive, working alongside ponies, pigs and the estate’s resident population of deer to sculpt varied layers of foliage.

Lord Somerleyton said: “The traditional view of landowners and the wildlife trusts is that nature needs to be managed for the best biodiversity benefits. Increasingly that theory is being upended by what we excitedly call ‘re-wilding’, as a better restoration of nature.

Members of the Wild East Project at the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris HillMembers of the Wild East Project at the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris Hill

“What I want to do here is restore biodiversity through natural processes at Fritton Lake.

“We had a long discussion of the relative impact of animals as bio-engineers. Cattle works very well with horses and pigs but you also need to have a much more destructive herbivore, which will strip bark and eat a lot of unpalatable stuff.

“It would be easier for me to get water buffalo because they are relatively domesticated and they are farmed in East Anglia already – but I will be chomping at the bit to get bison.

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“I know I am not the first to try it and there are some in Scotland in more of a wildlife park, which gets over the headache of importing them.”

Lord Somerleyton said the estate is working with Natural England to see if the project could be funded under the Higher Level Stewardship agreement which covers most of the estate, expiring in 2021. If not, he said he is prepared to put up fencing and forge ahead at his own expense.

“The block of land at Ashby Common is 240 acres of the whole, and it is the most diverse and has the least arable agriculture – we will have animals in there within the next six months,” he said. “It won’t be all of them, but it could be a few ponies and some of our own cattle and sheep.

“If there is no barrier to bison or water buffalo coming to a private area around Fritton Lake and I have got the fencing up then I would be happy to do that within a year. I will have one of these two animals.”

Lord Somerleyton said the project is part of his wider goal to create a holistic environment plan for the entire 5,000-acre estate, working in tandem with its agricultural and tourism businesses, and building a “virtuous circle” of high animal welfare, high biodiversity, and healthy food sources.

And he hopes to expand his ethos further through the Wild East Project, a landscape-scale nature restoration project still in its infancy, bringing together like-minded landowners and organisations including the RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Suffolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group).

A WILD VISION OF THE FUTURE

When asked how he expected the re-wilding scheme to look in 25 years, Lord Somerleyton said: “We will have this confluence of the arable land with emergent scrub and lots of wildflowers and grazed areas.

“The bigger herbivores are bringing seeds out from the woods so there is a bigger diversity of growth being spread. The woodland would look more like a wood pasture, with a few low density trees, some of which will be standing dead because they have been de-barked, with a lot of secondary growth of scrub and trees.

“Once the pigs root through the bracken and more sunlight comes in we expect a lot of other things to come through that we don’t yet know about. “We will get a more disrupted mosaic of habitats. It will be very untidy in the context of what we are used to seeing, but it will be heaven for nature.”

BISON AS ‘ECOSYSTEM RESTORERS’

Large herbivores such as bison work as “ecosystem restorers” within a wild landscape that benefits many other species, according to a Dutch grazing expert.

Leo Linnartz was guest speaker at the Wild East Project conference at Somerleyton Hall, where he outlined a pilot scheme at Kraansvlak in the Netherlands which has inspired some of Lord Somerleyton’s re-wilding plans at the estate.

The Dutch project uses European bison, imported from Poland, to de-bark trees and graze off large bushes and dense shrubs, while Konik ponies shorten the grass, allowing rabbits to return, and building a natural ecosystem which supports insect life and a resurgence in breeding birds.

The regeneration of grassland also creates better food for traditional cattle, and the environment also includes roe and fallow deer.

The larger animals deposit natural fertiliser through their manure, and distribute seeds from plants and trees, creating a more natural diversity with mixed succession phases, creating space for all kinds of creatures to profit from the grazing mammals’ work.

Mr Linnartz said this natural landscape echoed prehistoric ecosystems which thrived before the interference of mankind.

“Once, Europe housed an enormous amount of large herbivores, from elephants to giant deer and we even had two kinds of bear just roaming around in the temperate zone,” he said. “Further north there were woolly mammoths and musk ox, but we let them all disappear.

“What we try to do in a modern landscape is put these pieces back together and let them interact with each other again. We try to restore grazing as a natural process. We don’t have woolly mammoths or straight-tusked elephants, but we do have a lot of large grazing mammals still available to us.”

Mr Linnartz said the bison lived in social groups and were able to exhibit their natural behaviour. They are given no additional food or shelter unless under extraordinary circumstances, and vets are called only when necessary, following the principle of “no pampering nor neglect”.

The bison can be enclosed with an electric fence at nose height of 120cm, he said, and they can even become a visitor attraction in public areas – but education is vital to warn people of the dangers of petting, feeding, provoking or chasing large animals, going against their natural instincts.

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