Eighty years after they were hunted to extinction, the successful reintroduction of a herd of wild European bison on to the dunes of the Dutch coast is paving the way for their return across the continent.
The largest land-living animal in Europe was last seen in the Netherlands centuries ago, and was wiped out on the continent by 1927. Despite successful efforts to breed the species again in the wilds of Poland in the 1950s, and renewed efforts in the last decade in western Europe, the European bison remains as endangered as the black rhino.
The 7,000 bison, or bison bonasus, that exist in Europe today are often given supplementary feed by rangers to get through the winter months.
Yet a study of a herd of 22 bison living in Kraansvlak, 330 hectares of dunes and natural ponds making up part of the Zuid-Kennemerland national park in north Holland, is now offering a more optimistic assessment of the bison’s chances of survival.
A series of research papers from the Dutch study further questions the belief that European bison are forest-dwelling creatures, a development that opens up their reintroduction to a whole host of new European environments.
Nature organisations in Sweden, Switzerland and the UK are looking on with interest, and knowledge is being shared with established projects in Spain, France and Germany.
“People thought, ‘Bison on dunes? The crazy Dutch’,” said Yvonne Kemp, the bison project leader in the Zuid-Kennemerland park, and the co-author of the latest published research. “But it is working, you can see the herd, they are having calves and doing well.
“The general view for decades was that European bison were a forest animal. But we were not so sure. We believed that they are not so suited to forests because today, still in winter time, in lots of areas, they feed the bison. They come to the hay, which is not super natural.”
Three bison were first introduced into the Kraansvlak, in the municipality of Bloemendaal, in April 2007, and a further three in 2008, at the start of a 10-year attempt to fight back against encroaching grasses and shrubbery stamping out the area’s biodiversity.
Managed by the water company, PWN, which exploits the natural filtration system of the dunes to supply north Holland, there was a pressing need for grazers to eat back the vegetation. And the appetite of bison is legendary.
“The bison is the largest terrestrial animal in Europe and it needs a lot of food and it needs not only grasses, but quite a lot of intake year round of weed species,” Kemp explained. “The thinking was that, combined with roe and fallow deer, cattle and rabbits, they could stop the encroachment [of the vegetation].”
The chief finding of the study was that European bison can survive without supplementary feeding, even in relatively small nature reserves, by grazing on grasses, herbs and woody plants. And, as their success in Europe’s most densely populated country shows, they can also live close to humans.
“Those are wild animals and this is a very urban area so at first we didn’t know what it would take [to reintroduce the herd],” said Kemp.
“We had fences of 2.2 metres like a military zone. They are really big, they can jump, they are very powerful … so we thought we would need really high electric fences. But we have learned what it takes; we have a fence now of 1.2 metres.
“At first we would come into the area in cars, but now we have a bison trail for the public to follow. There is a general rule not to go within 50 metres of them, and that’s sensible. But it is safe, and the bison are not stressed.”
The bison’s work is evident on the undulating dunes, which are situated between the Zandvoort racing track, whose stand is visible from the highest points, and the city of Haarlem to the east.
The animals are impervious to the scratchy hawthorns that would cut up other grazers, and with an average weight of 610kg (96 stone), debarked trees are felled with ease as the bison roam, opening up areas of dense growth for other species. They leave a calling card in the shape of tufts of their winter coat on stumps and bushes.
“It is also exciting to see how nature adapts here,” Kemp said. In sub-Saharan Africa the oxpecker has a symbiotic relationship with the buffalo, picking off the parasites in their coats. “Here we have seen magpies doing that job, standing on the bison.”
East of Amsterdam, a re-wilding project on the Oostvaardersplassen, where red deer, horses and cattle roam free on low-lying marsh, has been criticised for allowing the grazers to reproduce to such a degree that food became scarce and animals shot to avoid starvation.
The Kraansvlak keeps a tight control on numbers, and rotates the bulls, of which they currently have two, with other projects internationally. “These are wild animals, we never forget that, and we are learning all the time,” Kemp said.