How Sussex can rediscover its wild side…

A bison stares at the viewer, its hooves deep in a wild grassy meadow, with the trunks of trees in the background.
The European bison. Its ancestors once roamed England… and it’s due for a comeback. Photo credit: Jonathan Mast / Unsplash

I trudge along the narrow footpath flanked on either side by barbed wire fences stretching ahead in parallel towards the horizon. To my left are the fields of a riding stable, to my right a field of bulls and rams. Beyond this is a golf course, and beyond that, another golf course. Directly ahead, straddling the footpath, is field upon field of cows and sheep. 

There are few trees except for occasional windswept hawthorns marking fence lines, and no wildlife save a few crows and magpies foraging for invertebrates in the livestock dung – unsuccessfully, as the animals are treated with pesticidal medications. 

I continue along this narrow shaft of public access, careful not to slip on the wet mud or step in dog mess. Welcome to the South Downs National Park!

Like all British national parks, the South Downs is failing. Even of the relatively impressive proportion of the park owned by Brighton & Hove City Council, over 90 per cent is farmland. National parks must all do far more to meet their duties to promote wildlife.

Although much about them must change to enable this, I wish to suggest a particular enthralling idea for the Downs: bison.

A narrow path through the South Downs National Park, east side bounded by a barbed wire fence.
The rolling, largely empty landscape meets a cloudy blue sky horizon. On the left a few sheep graze.
A walk on the tame side: the South Downs with its sheep, cows and virtually treeless vistas. Photo credit: Ross McNally

The European Bison – not to be confused with the buffalo – is the largest terrestrial herbivore species remaining in Europe. Given archaeological evidence that it was present in Doggerland – the land bridge between Britain and continental Europe now submerged by the North Sea – at least as recently as the early Holocene Epoch (~11,000 years ago) and that it, or its extinct relative the Steppe bison, were likely present in Britain significantly later than this, it should be regarded as a native species. 

With bulls reaching masses approaching a ton they are heavy hitters on their habitat, mainly by means of grazing and browsing, but also by scratching themselves on trees, trampling vegetation, dust bathing and wallowing. They can thus maintain open areas of habitat, including bare soil, low sward, and ephemeral pools of standing water, important microhabitats for a range of creatures.

Conservation managers are obsessed with grassland

Their role in nutrient cycling through urination and defecation can alter the distribution of soil fertility, forming distinct plant communities, as can their carcass decomposition.

Conservation managers in the South Downs are obsessed with chalk grassland. All well and good as a habitat, but the only reason it is so common is because of centuries of deforestation followed by centuries of overgrazing and soil depletion.

Maintaining that overgrazing, using sheep – an invasive ruminant – decimates the vegetation structure and is a largely arbitrary decision to freeze the landscape in a particular state that they happen to think looks nice, at the expense of a more exciting ecology. 

A group of sheep lying on close-cropped grass, while others graze. ?The land is all close cropped and largely empty. In the distance are short lines of trees.
Woolly thinking: sheep are actually an invasive species, creating a manicured landscape rather than one that encourages wildlife diversity. Photo credit: Ross McNally

Rewilding is a relatively new but rapidly spreading idea. It can describe a broad array of ecosystem management and conservation actions. It can be passive, such as the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project, to recover coastal kelp forests by protecting almost 200 square kilometres of coastline from nearshore trawling.

Or it can be more active, involving reintroducing missing species that would have been important components of their ecosystem, prior to their eradication usually due to man-made pressures. An example of this is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

Rewilding restores ecosystems to a point where, as far as possible, they can regulate themselves.

Bison would enable the best of both worlds: maintaining open grassland over areas of the Downs, whilst also allowing space for scrub and developing woodland, which in turn would be used for shelter and food by the bison. They would expose bare soil, ideal for colonisation by low-growing perennial plants such as the horseshoe vetch. The latter is prized by downland conservationists because it’s the main food plant of Adonis and Chalkhill Blue butterfly larvae. 

Is there enough room for bison in crowded, domesticated England?

Landscapes aren’t naturally segregated into boxes labelled ‘chalk grassland,’ ‘woodland’ or ‘scrub’. In fully functional ecosystems, these features blend and interchange over time and regulate themselves.

A major obstacle might be the question of space. How could we reintroduce bison in crowded, domesticated southern England? The South Downs National Park covers an area of 1,625 square kilometres. Białowieża National Park on the Polish-Belarussian border became the first place to reintroduce bison from captivity. And there the core area occupied by bison is around 100 square kilometres.

The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya hosts both black and white rhinoceroses, elephants, hippopotamuses and lions in an area of around 250 square kilometres. Hopefully the point is clear: the question is not whether we have space, but how we use it. It’s recommended that a population of bison should be reintroduced into a habitat with a minimum size of 100 square kilometres, which should theoretically be easy to find.

And in Kent, the Wilder Blean project run by Kent Wildlife Trust and The Wildwood Trust, will introduce the first ‘free-roaming’ bison to Britain in 2022. This project will initially release one male and three females into a fenced area of West Blean Woods in order to help restore natural management of the woodland and boost biodiversity. 

“I was told by the parks people that ‘amazing things can be achieved by small changes’. This sounded like a wafer-thin excuse for complacency”

When I raised the prospect of bison here, in Sussex, with the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), the response was disappointing and exasperating. Firstly, they said they weren’t in a position to make this kind of decision because the park is mostly private land. They then said that “while keystone species can be drivers of nature recovery, the best outcomes for biodiversity are not always achieved by focusing on these species. Amazing things can be achieved by much smaller and incremental changes in land management…”

‘The best outcomes for biodiversity are not always achieved’ by a focus on keystone species: but often, they are – that is literally the definition of a keystone species: one which has disproportionately strong effects on its ecosystem. Like the wolves in Yellowstone Park. This sounded like a wafer-thin excuse for complacency.

The next point, defending ‘smaller and incremental changes’, would be pathetic if it wasn’t so terrifying. Perhaps the crew of the Titanic said similar things about rearranging the deckchairs. One would hope that the authorities charged with protecting national parks would take the conjoined climate and ecological emergencies seriously and at least, on paper, support bold mitigating action.

Rewilding could help provide natural solutions to the climate crisis

Indeed, the link between the crises of climate and biodiversity is becoming ever starker, with habitat destruction also depriving land and marine ecosystems of natural carbon sinks like rainforests, peatlands or kelp forests.  Ambitious rewilding efforts, by helping to restore and rebalance ecosystems, could help to provide natural climate solutions, as the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project intends. 

The failure of the SDNPA to see the value of this should not however be an excuse for despondency, but rather should catalyse a more resolute effort from activists and the public to demand that our national parks step up to the forefront of rewilding.

Meanwhile, the pioneering Kent project is likely to galvanise a new phase of rewilding and ecotourism in Britain. Our public bodies must be made to follow its lead. Don’t let them fiddle while Earth burns.

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