The European bison cautiously stepped out into an ancient woodland in Kent this morning (Monday 18 July), and it is hoped they will play a part in tackling the climate and nature crisis.
It's quite apt then that they have been released today, on what could be the hottest day in British history, with scientists warning that climate change is increasing the likelihood of such heatwaves.
It's not thought that the three bison roaming Kent will have an immediate impact on the current heatwave, so it could still be a restless night tonight, but it is hoped that over time they will help to restore complex habitats to help nature thrive and be more able to cope with climate change, while also storing more carbon in woodland to reduce the emissions driving up temperatures.
The creatures are the continent's largest land mammal and the closest living relative to ancient steppe bison, that would have once roamed Britain and naturally managed the habitat.
They've been released into a fenced enclosure to help restore the woods with their natural behaviour – grazing, felling trees, eating bark and taking dust baths – which will open the canopy and create new spaces for other wildlife.
The animals will change the forest away from a monoculture and create wetter areas that will not only store carbon but reduce flood risk, conservationists said.
It is the first time in thousands of years bison have roamed the British landscape, and they will soon be joined by other exciting-sounding grazing animals, such as Exmoor ponies, Iron Age pigs and Longhorn cattle.
The release, led by Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust, forms part of a £1.12 million project to manage West Blean and Thornden Woods near Canterbury, funded by the People's Postcode Lottery Dream Fund.
Donovan Wright, one of the two bison rangers who will look after their welfare, maintain the fencing and help with public engagement, said the animals were an important keystone species that shaped the habitat they were in.
"They've got this remarkable ability to increase biodiversity just through being bison. We really need that in the woods," he said.
Their feeding activities such as stripping back trees and rubbing off bark creates microhabitats such as standing deadwood for insects and fungi and rides and glades which become home to plant species, he said, while their fur is even collected by birds for nesting.
"You get this ricochet effect through the ecosystem, so many species are able to benefit from the bison in the ecosystem," he said.
The herd is made up of a matriarch brought from Scotland, a bull from Germany and two youngsters from Ireland, and Wright said he could not wait for the first calf to be born from the group.
Evan Bowen-Jones, chief executive at Kent Wildlife Trust, said: "The restoration of naturally functioning ecosystems is a vital and inexpensive tool in tackling the climate crisis.
"The bison will help to create climate resistant landscapes which can adapt to the challenges presented by the crisis we face."
He said there was a need to revolutionise the way landscapes were restored, with less human intervention and more use of natural engineers such as bison, boar and beaver.
The impact of the bison and other grazing animals on wildlife and the landscape will be monitored with a long term survey programme led by Kent Wildlife Trust.
Paul Whitfield, director general of Wildwood Trust, said: "With this project we're going to prove the impact bison in the wild can have on the environment. They will create an explosion of biodiversity and build habitat resilience, locking in carbon to help reduce global temperature rise.
"Not only this, but we're giving people in the UK – for the first time in over 1,000 years – the chance to experience bison in the wild.
"It's a really powerful, emotional, visceral experience and it's something we've lost in this country."
Featured Image Credit: Kent Wildlife Trust/Alamy