Return of the Bison to the Netherlands

Some eighty years since they were hunted to extinction in Europe, a small herd of wild European bison have been successfully reintroduced to the coastal dunes of the Dutch coast. It could lead to them being reintroduced elsewhere in Europe.

The European bison is the largest land-living animal in Europe. It has been extinct in Europe since 1927, and from the Netherlands for hundreds of years. There were attempts to breed the species in Poland in the 1950s, but the European bison remains as endangered as the black rhino.

The 7,000 bison, bison bonasus, that currently live in Europe are often given supplementary feed by conservationalists to get through the winter months. However, 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 suggesting a more optimistic chances for survival of the bison.

Bison bonasus
Michael Gäbler, Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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. The general view for decades was that European bison inhabited forests. The Dutch researchers believe that they are not so suited to forests because today, still in winter time, in lots of areas, the forests do not provide enough food for the bison.

Three bison were first introduced into the Kraansvlak, at the southern end of Zuid-Kennemerland National Park along the Dutch coast, in April 2007. Three more were added in 2008, at the start of a 10-year attempt to fight back against encroaching grasses and shrubbery reducing the area’s biodiversity.

The appetite of bison is voracious. The bison needs a lot of food and it needs not only grasses, but quite a lot of year-round weed species. The researchers believed that, combined with roe and fallow deer, cattle and rabbits, they could stop the encroachment of the vegetation.

The main results 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. Their success in Europe’s most densely populated country shows that they can also live close to humans.

The area is bordered by a fence of 1.2 metres. Initially, people visiting the area to see the bison came in in cars. Now there is a bison trail for the public to follow. There is a general rule not to go within 50 metres of them, and the bison are not stressed.

The bison are unaffected by the scratchy hawthorns that would cut up other grazers, and with an average weight of 610kg, debarked trees are felled with ease, opening up areas of dense growth for other species. In sub-Saharan Africa the oxpecker has a symbiotic relationship with the buffalo, picking off the parasites in their coats. In Kraansvlak magpies have been seen standing on bison and removing the parasites.

East of Amsterdam, a re-wilding project on the Oostvaarderplassen, 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. In contrast, in the Kraansvlak, park authorities keep a tight control on animal numbers. Overall, the Kraansvlak appears to have been a successful project so far.

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