Introducing Bison in the Dutch Dunes

After a week of anticipation in the dunes, we were excited to go and meet Yvonne and see the bison herd! Yvonne works for the European Rewilding Network and was the one who said that we could go ahead with our rewilding cycle tour. She has been really enthusiastic about our trip and helped us organise it by getting in touch with projects on our behalf.

We arrived at the office to meet her for the first time and she greeted us cheerily with open arms, inviting us in, introducing us to colleagues, telling us stories and asking about our journey so far. She’s exuberant and her enthusiasm is infectious! So off we went into the field together to try and find the bison, chattering about rewilding all the way.

In the overgrown dunes with Yvonne

In the overgrown dunes with Yvonne

National Park Zuid-Kennemerland is the area that houses the bison.  It has an interesting history – and an interesting present – and not one that you’d usually associate with rewilding projects.  When the private owners put the land up for sale, the local government bought it with view to it being used by the water company PWN.  The original plan for part of the land was to use it for storing drinking water in the sand dunes. Thankfully this didn’t happen, and the land was then left as a nature area.  PWN is still the land manager for large parts of the National Park, along with some other companies and individuals.  Interestingly, PWN has a Nature Department and sets aside around 3% of their budget for nature projects, which is brilliant.

The National Park was largely open to the public except for an area in the south that was kept closed off. The closed off area used to be a dynamic dune system, but in the absence of large herbivores and people, the dunes were becoming increasingly vegetated. The vegetation stops the sand moving around and the dynamic dunes were made sedentary. The idea of bringing in large herbivores was to allow the dunes to move freely once again. Highland cattle and Konik horses are already used across Holland for natural grazing, but bison? Bison in the Dutch dunes?! The Director for Nature at PWN at the time was Piet Veel, who was instrumental is proposing and initiating the reintroduction of European bison here.

A local press article about the idea didn’t receive a single negative response, so ahead they went! And the results have been fantastic so far. It has been 8 years since the first animals arrived from Poland and the herd now comprises 24 animals, including 5 adorable calves that were born this summer.

The area where the bison now roam is the area that was closed off to the public.  Not only is it now home to a bison herd, it is also no longer closed off to the public! There is a footpath through the bison enclosure that is open in the winter months, so people can walk along and hope to glimpse these majestic creatures. But don’t bring your dogs and don’t leave the trail! The bison are very relaxed around people who keep their distance and stay in sight.

The bison area is 330 hectares, which doesn’t sound that big, but the animals are surprisingly difficult to find. The dunes have lots of dips and hillocks, so you could be 50m away from the whole herd without knowing it! To help researchers and the public find the herd, one of the females has a GPS collar, so you can go online and track their movements every hour – very cool.

On our search for the bison, we also got to see some of the effects that the bison are having on the area.

The bison enclosure comprises different types of habitat. There are areas of open sand dunes, areas of scrub, some overgrown with trees, and a few patches of planted woodland. The effects that the bison are having are clear and beneficial. Bison love to take sand baths to scrub off insects, and the patches they use to wallow in get freed of vegetation. These sand patches are then used by lots of insects and amphibians – sand lizards even lay their eggs in them!

Bison also enjoy a good scratching post, so wherever there is a suitable branch, a sand patch emerges underneath it and the branch gets polished by bison bodies. When the post eventually buckles under the strain, the post is abandoned and pioneer plants enjoy colonising the free space.

Old wallowing patch growing back

Old wallowing patch growing back

Bison rubbing post

Bison rubbing post

We walked for a few hours through the bison area, seeing where they were on the GPS tracking system and looking for traces of them on the ground. Then Yvonne spotted a small herd of fallow deer in the dunes! They’re shy so it was a pleasure to be able to watch them grazing and playing before they spotted us and bounded off into the distance. Then we crossed a sand patch and saw bison tracks! We could see where they’d walked, where they’d wallowed and where they’d relieved themselves. Onwards, to try and find them.

Fallow deer

Fallow deer fleeing the humans

We headed through low, spiky scrub up a small rise, and looked out onto a sand flat where there was a small lake… and there was the whole bison herd! Neither of us had ever seen wild European bison before, so it was a fabulous first for us. There they were, some looking at us, just standing by the water, not fazed by our presence. They are gorgeous, gentle-looking creatures, with slim bodies, large heads and wide shoulders – oh, and sharp, solid horns! They have big brown eyes and such soft-looking fur. But Yvonne wasn’t keen on having one sedated just so that we could stroke it (such a spoil-sport).

Bison herd

Bison herd

They're looking at us!

Checking us out

Look how cute the little one is!

Look how cute the little one is!

Suckling calf

Suckling calf

We watched them for some time, seeing the calves drink and the adults ruminate. Then they started to move off for lunch and we did the same, retiring to a patch of woodland for a shady spot.

When we got back to the office we bumped into the legendary Piet and enjoyed chatting with him about the project over teas and coffees.

What a fabulous day. We’re looking forward to whatever the next few days have in store!

– Anna

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