Bison habitat preference becomes a pawn in the disputed natural vegetation cover of Europe
There is evidence as far back as the 1960s that the Nature Conservancy in Britain had wrestled with the legitimacy of using livestock grazing in National Nature Reserves, in particular sheep, to maintain “large areas of unstable vegetation in a highly artificial condition” (1). A symposium on the use of grazing as a conservation tool had been held in 1965 at Monks Wood Experimental Station where reports were presented on grazing experiments and how to conduct them, and there was a discussion on what the impacts of grazing had been. There was no discussion about grazing and original naturalness other than an oblique reference in the notes to “natural grasslands”, but without defining what these may be. In addition, the only reference to predators was in relation to their threatened existence in the uplands “as long as grouse, or even Red Deer, remain the chief interest”. If there was an historical aspect to the symposium, then it was about referencing the agricultural period, and its associated economic conditions, that had had similar land use under which a species of interest had thrived.
That nature conservation was tied to agriculture
had pretty much been sealed with the setting up of the Nature Conservancy.
Government had appointed a Wild Life Conservation Committee for England in
1947 (Huxley Committee) that recommended setting up a national biological
service to establish nature reserves in Britain, while providing scientific
advice on conservation and control of flora and fauna of Britain, and carrying
out research to support government decisions (2). The Nature Conservancy was
thus established by Royal Charter just before passage of the legislation in
1949 that gave the Conservancy powers to enter into agreements with land
owners for land that would be “expedient in the national interest” to
be managed as a reserve (3). During the early life
of its existence, the Conservancy was responsible to the Agriculture Research
Council, which seems apposite since it would be farmers in control of these
sites, and not conservationists (2):
This was not entirely the case as the proceedings of the symposium at Monkswood on conservation grazing reveal (1). It was recognised that overgrazing by sheep in Wales, Scotland and upland England had been responsible for changes in vegetation that many ecologists had considered to be deleterious. Heavy grazing in those locations had eradicated woodland and prevented regeneration of trees and shrubs, while species that were sensitive to grazing (heather, cowberry, mountain avens) were eradicated as these communities were converted to grassland. In addition, a loss of productivity, especially on the poorer soils, was associated with a policy of continued heavy grazing with the result that soil erosion and scree formation was commonplace in Highland regions. I thus wonder what that group at Monkswood in the 1960s would make of the obsession of many in Western Europe that large herbivore grazing maintains the original naturalness that would have prevailed if humans had not depleted the wild herbivore guild. In the 1960s, grazing as a conservation tool was about maintaining lowland grassland areas so that targeted species could thrive, such as chalkland species, when so-called naturalistic grazing is now predicated to shape the whole of landscape vegetation, including whether, where, and to what extent any woodland should exist (4).
The historical distribution of European bison
The immensity of the confidence trick that is
being played on us by this advocacy is only caught out in discovering the
meretricious way in which falsities in fact are propagated and then relied on.
The fast and loose way that the historical distribution of European bison
(Bison bonasus) is used and abused illustrates this, the European
megaherbivore mafia disregarding what evidence exists in their quest to have
this animal tramping and defecating everywhere in Europe. It’s about at the
level of the science evident in Wikipedia, the current entry for European
bison indicating that it died out in southern England in the 12th century (5).
I’ve puzzled over where this immensely erroneous statement came from, much as
I have puzzled over the presence shown in SE England of European bison during
the Pleistocene on a map in the recent report that the Zoological Society for
London (ZSL) produced on Wildlife comeback in Europe
(see Fig 1A in (6)). The former assertion crops up in a species action plan
for the European bison produced for the Council of Europe (7):
I will explain later how this mistaken assertion
arose, but it is interesting that it is dropped from a conservation action
plan for the European bison, written by the same authors and released one year
later (8). It is that second action plan to which ZSL’s report refers to for
derivation of its map for the Pleistocene distribution. Sure enough, that
report does show a map for the distribution of bison in Europe, and which
shows a presence of European bison in SE England, but it is labeled as being
during the Holocene and early historical times and not the Pleistocene (see
Fig. 3.1 in (8)). That map in turn references a chapter in a book from the
USSR Academy of Sciences on the morphology, systematics, evolution and ecology
of European bison, where exactly the same map is shown, the Russian legend
also indicating that it is the distribution in the Holocene and early
historical times (see Fig 46 in (9)). A clue to what is going on here is given
in the Bison “Rewilding” Plan of the spectacularly misnamed “Rewilding” Europe
(10) for it was that organisation that commissioned the report on wildlife
comeback in Europe from ZSL. You would not be surprised that the map in the
latter report is reproduced in the Bison “Rewilding” Plan, but it is labeled
differently (see fig on page 11 (10)):
It is unusual for RE to get some of the science partially right, since they only use it to substantiate their actions when it suits their purpose (11). Even then, RE have lumped in the known distributions of the extinct long-horned steppe bison (B. priscus) and which did have a presence in SE England in the Pleistocene, and across Europe, but was extinct by the Holocene (see Figs 3 and 6 in (12)) and European bison (B. bonasus) that while it had a presence in continental Europe in the Holocene, did not have a presence in England (see Fig 2 and 3 in (13)). This also gives an explanation for the Russian mapping with its supposed presence in the Holocene of European bison in SE England because it was erroneously mapping the distribution of steppe bison as well. The Bison “Rewilding” Plan of RE did allow that there is no evidence for European bison having inhabited Western Europe into the Iberian Peninsula, or southern Europe into the Italian Peninsula. However, in the usual slippery way of RE, doubt is cast on the lack of evidence by suggesting that the fossil bones of European bison could have been misidentified as aurochs, and that if only they were re-examined it could justify bison being plonked in their “proposed reintroduction areas” that are outside of the known Holocene distribution. Well, aurochs disappeared from Britain over 3,000 years ago (14) and so I don’t think there is much scope for confusion. Anyway, now you know why the RE map combined the distributions of both species of bison, since it gives out that subliminal message that everywhere is up for grabs for bison introduction.
Doubt is also cast by RE on the habitat preference of bison, since it does not suit their vision that bison are commonly associated with woodland habitats such as the Białowieża Forest in Poland (15) rather than the “open or half-open habitats” driven by large herbivores that the European megaherbivore mafia is obsessed with. In support of an assertion that forest never constituted optimal bison habitat, the Bison “Rewilding” Plan pointed erroneously to a paper about the steppe bison and the origination of European bison; a paper on the shape of bison teeth that suggests it’s a grass eater rather than an intermediate feeder (16) but which is contradicted by evidence of consumption patterns (17) and two papers that argue that the woodland preference of bison is an artefact of human persecution when the animal retreated there for refuge (18, 19). If you want to gauge what RE made of this evidence of historical distribution and habitat preference of European Bison, then ponder that in the box labeled “Guiding Principles” in this section of the Bison “Rewilding” Plan, it says “Rewilding Europe will interpret the European bison range in relation to its ecological requirements and future climate change, rather than solely as its historical Holocene distribution” (10). How principled is that?
Bison as a refuge species
In terms of dodgy principles, I want now to explore this issue of bison being a refuge species, because it is here that bison became a pawn in the battle over the natural vegetation cover of Europe. The first of the refuge papers invokes the “small population paradigm” of Caughley to criticise reinstatement of bison over the second half of the 20th century into mostly woodland areas when these had seemed the most appropriate habitat conditions (18). The paradigm is about the vulnerability of species in nature conservation measures when they are being maintained in sub-optimal locations with limited population (20). There is a painful irony in this referencing of Caughley, for it was he who needlessly and meretriciously trashed the reputation of Aldo Leopold by accusing him of using unreliable data on the irruption of deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona in the 1920s to substantiate a link with a policy of local removal of predators such as wolves and mountain lions. Caughley claimed that the reason for the deer irruption was instead the greater food resource available after removal of livestock from the plateau (21). He did this so that he could then substantiate the results of his study on the irruption of the non-native Himalayan thar (more properly called tahr) a goat-like bovid, after its release as a feral species in New Zealand. Since the thar had no native predator in New Zealand, it fitted the explanation of his results that the rate of increase of the thar population was influenced only by food supply. Caughley has been exposed as a hypocrite in having himself misused livestock numbers to make his case about the Kaibab Plateau, and of not using information available from vegetation surveys, fenced exclosures, and revised deer population estimates (22). But the damage was done and it would be 45 years until a reinvestigation based on the age range and regeneration of aspen on the plateau discounted a linkage between deer irruption with removal of livestock, making it more likely that the cause was the removal of predators (22). You may notice that the European megaherbivore mafia invariably discount the effect of carnivores on their hallowed herbivory (11).
The second refuge paper was critical of a study that had combined a Species Distribution Model with a dynamic vegetation model based on locations of fossil bone finds to reconstruct the natural range of bison in Europe before large scale human influence (23). This found the heartland of European bison to be in Central and Eastern Europe, but the range of the bison varied strongly on its eastern and northern edge during the last 8,000 years, stretching further north and east than previously thought. The critical findings were that the distribution during the Holocene did not extend substantially into Western Europe, which was in line with fossil bone evidence. In addition, their modeling suggested the habitat preferences of European bison during the Holocene were broader than previously thought, with bison thriving in semi-open areas as well as in broadleaved, mixed and coniferous forests.
The criticism of these findings was directed at
the use of Holocene fossil bone finds in the Species Distribution Model
because the claim was that the bison was already in refuge before 8,000
years ago, and
so the habitat preference was skewed (19). I find this a bit odd since it is
not consistent with an origination and distribution of the new bison species
in B. bonasus during the Holocene, but there was more. It was revealed in the
critique that the Kraansvlak was a pilot introduction of European bison
into an open coastal dune landscape of the Netherlands, along with Konik
horses, the bison being described as “free-ranging” (24) but they are
in fact in a fenced enclosure within the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland (25).
The assertions were that bison introductions in semi-open landscapes arising
from farm abandonment would contribute to the conservation of these
landscapes, and that experimental introduction programs, like Kraansvlak,
could be better predictors of bison habitat preference than any historical
information. Then, in terms reminiscent of the ecological disaster at
the Ooosvardersplassen (26) the impact of the bison on what few trees there were
in these dunes was described (19):
It’s at this point that you realise the main reason why there was criticism of the findings of the modeling of the Holocene distribution of European bison - because it did not show a presence in the Netherlands! Then you notice that the name of Joris Cromsigt of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences keeps cropping up as an author on the refuge papers, the referenced paper and others about Kraansvlak, and that he has been involved with the bison introduction project there from the start (27). Another name then to add to the European megaherbivore mafia, but more seriously without Kraansvlak, and Cromsigt’s involvement there, being referenced in the first refuge paper, then the refuge argument would seem to come down to an attempt to trash what was known about European bison habitat so that it could legitimise the presence of these bison pushed into a fenced enclosure on a coastal dune system in the Netherlands. You can see the menace of this propagation of propaganda in the literature in that a study came out recently on a comparison of the stable isotope content of fossil bones of bison, aurochs and moose where the less depleted content of carbon isotope is alleged to support the refuge theory because it shows evidence of occupation of a more open landscape by bison compared to aurochs and moose (28). The trouble with this interpretation of δ13C abundance is that it could be an over-emphasis on it representing habitat open-ness when other studies – and the authors themselves – recognise that carbon isotope abundance is also a signifier of a difference between wet and dry landscapes, and this would fit with the drier habitat of the bison compared to the wetland habitat of moose and aurochs (29). At least their data on δ15N abundance is less open to other interpretations, showing as may be expected the steppe bison having had a less woody diet than the European bison, that the moose as a browser had a more woody diet than the intermediate feeding of the European bison, which in turn had a more woody diet than the grazing of the aurochs (28)
I don’t really need to be critical of the refuge authors because the authors of the modelling study replied with a devastating exposé of the logic failure and lack of data in assuming bison was a refuge species in the early Holocene (30). They firstly pointed out that it was a bit rich to criticise them when they had allowed that their modelling had showed a more open habitat preference than previously thought, although this did not discount the woodland aspect. They noted that reconstructions of human population and farming expansion in Europe do not support the view that European bison must have already been a refuge species before 8,000 BP, and that human pressure had pushed bison out of Southern and Western Europe. Moreover, human pressure in Southern and Western Europe had been lower than in Central Europe. They also pointed out that no explanation had been given as to why the European bison’s range would have been severely curtailed by humans prior to 8,000 BP, but then maintained as a stable distribution for the next 5,000 years, although human pressure rose substantially during that time. They reiterated that no European bison remains from the early Holocene had been found in Western and Southern Europe, although many archaeozoological assemblages exist that show remains of other prey species of human hunters such as wild horses. They questioned introductions into the densely settled Southern and Western Europe, where conflicts with people and land use would have be huge and European bison had not been present during the last 8000 years, and where conservation efforts incur high financial costs. Perhaps their most scathing response was about the Kraansvlak project, that habitat preferences in small-scale experimental introductions without predators and limited competition, and without natural disturbance processes such as fire, have limited value when the goal is to identify optimal habitat, especially when bison occupy large territories and have the ability to migrate.
I couldn’t agree more, and while that response did not seek to identify the underlying reasons why the refuge theory had been put forward, it was nailed by Cis van Vuure from the Netherlands when he tied the introductions of European bison in areas like the Kraansvlak, where there was no evidence of their Holocene presence, to the overweening ambitions of Dutch nature management (also known as Dutch nature development) and the repeated claims that the bison had been present in NW Europe during the Middle Ages (31). In asking the question of whether European bison had ever been present in the Netherlands, van Vuure examined the fossil bone evidence as well as the written sources that make claims for the occurrence of the European bison in the Middle Ages in southern Sweden, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. He concluded that the claims partly arose due to name confusion with aurochs, partly through inaccurate interpretations of texts, and partly by people simply advancing unsubstantiated assertions, many of which had been debunked some time ago, but were still being passed on as reliable information. He was able to explain for me the erroneous claim in Wikipedia about a presence of European bison in England upto to the 12th centrury, noting that it went back to a text by Genthe in 1918, who had in turn taken it from a text by Struckmann in 1882. Struckmann had been misled by name confusion and claimed (among other things) that the aurochs “became extinct in England only in the 12th century” (over 2,000 years after they did – see above) although Struckmann did not provide any evidence for this.
Cross-breeding cattle for the new aurochs
van Vuure has previously waded in on the legitimacy of konik horses in Dutch nature management, especially in the Oosvardersplassen (and note they are in Kraansvlakas as well - see above) questioning the veracity of claims going back centuries about the horse being a primitive breed descended directly from the European wild horse (32). He also notes that the framing of the Oostvaardersplassen as an “untouched natural ecosystem” is unjustified, because of its incompleteness and artificiality (and see my view (26)). He was one of the first to cast doubt on the historical ecological role attributed by Dutch nature management to aurochs in woodland development, and on the rhetoric of functional replacements for the extinct aurochs, noting that a “policy intending the creation of an open park-like landscape by means of natural grazing and browsing is doomed to fail” (33). It is of course the quest of Dutch nature management to secure those replacements – those “functional wild animals” - by back-breeding “primitive” or “wild” cattle breeds to create a new aurochs.
The Tauros Programme (34) was set up by the Taurus Foundation, a private Dutch Foundation (35) in 2008 to re-create aurochs from “primitive” cattle breeds by back-breeding, selecting from amongst Limia, Maronesa, Maremmana, Sayaguesa, Pajuna, Podolica, Tadunca, Alistana-Sanabresa and Boškarin cattle to cross-breed, as they are allegedly the most closely related to the extinct aurochs – did I leave out any breeds? A number of second- and third-generation crossbred cattle, enclosed by fencing, are in Tauros breeding sites in the Netherlands and in “Rewilding” Europe’s project areas in Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Romania, the “final goal of the programme, to be met in some 20 years, is the presence of the Tauros as a self-sufficient wild bovine grazer in herds of at least 150 animals each in several rewilding areas in Europe” (36).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an original founder of Tauros Programme left in 2012 to set up the Megafauna Foundation, a private Dutch Foundation, after a disagreement with the Tauros Programme over the best way to back-breed, citing the “use of too many cattle breeds” (37). As I have noted before, the Megaherbivore Foundation changed its name to the True Nature Foundation (11) and set out on its “Uruz” programme to breed back an animal that resembles aurochs in appearance and behaviour, but using genome editing as well as cross-breeding “wild cattle species of Europe” that have a “strong resemblance to the Aurochs” but with using only four breeds of cattle (38). Their initial herds were at the Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in Lorsch, Germany, and Breda, Netherlands, but cross-breeds are now placed with project areas in Ukraine, Portugal, Spain, Romania and the Netherlands.
I just wonder whether this bunch of cattle breeders really believe they are “Brining back natural forces, including the original fauna” “Reconstructing grazer communities for natural regeneration” “Restoring a lost icon that roamed throughout Europe until four centuries ago”(38)? Similar sentiments are echoed by RE and the Tauros programme, but does RE really believe that these new aurochs will, by 2025, have the “right, fully natural characteristics of the aurochs” and be “officially recognized as a normal wildlife species” so that they will be released from behind fencing to free living (39). I keep thinking of the paper that showed a distinct separation of habitats for domestic cattle from aurochs revealed by isotope analysis, suggesting that Neolithic farming groups exploited environmentally-different areas for their cattle from those used naturally by aurochs (29). It goes to the heart of the nonsense of thinking that back breeding will undo millennia of domestication, leading to a restoration of natural habitat selection. Domestic cattle are not wild animals - breeding in wildness from primitive cattle is an anthropogenic action that lacks any means of evaluation. Moreover, phenotypic similarity (looking like an aurochs) does not guarantee genetic or behavioural similarity. As much as anything, de-domestication of livestock through naturalistic grazing (free-ranging within fencing enclosures and resource limited) is wishful thinking, and only turns the clock back 1,000 years when concentrating of cattle began, and not 3,000 years ago when the last aurochs were here in Britain. Nor does it return the native instinct for preservation from predator attack. Fundamentally, the inevitable enclosure of these grazing animals in Dutch nature management by fencing, and the absence of behavioural modification from carnivores, means there is no spatial element in their herbivore effect, nor ability to migrate through larger landscapes depending on season, nutrient variation etc. What will happen to the first wolf that jumps the fence and kills one of these new aurochs?
It is the way of things that private foundations can pursue any agenda, churn out any propaganda, but without any scrutiny or public mandate. Thus, against this backdrop of bovine ordure coming from the European megaherbivore mafia, is it any wonder that I was underwhelmed to have received a briefing document from “Rewilding” Britain for a “rewilding” landscapes group meeting that sought to describe the products of “rewilding”, and had in a list of variables that have an impact on land that has been “rewilded”, the following question: “Are a few cattle wandering around the wood a problem?”
Mark Fisher 16 November 2015
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(2) Evans, D (2002) A History of Nature Conservation in Britain. Routledge
(3) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949
(4) Rewilding Europe (2011) Forest growth and regrowth. In: Main Guiding Principles
(5) European bison, Wikipedia
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(11) What is rewilding? Self-willed land September 2013
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(15) Bison bonasus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
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(24) Smit, C., J. Dekker & J. Cromsigt 2008. Ruimte voor de wisent in de lage landen. De Levende Natuur 109 (1): 32-33
(25) European bison in Kraansvlak
(26) A challenge to Rewilding Britain, Self-willed land August 2015
(27) Joris Cromsigt, Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
(28) Bocherens H, Hofman-Kamińska E, Drucker DG, Schmölcke U, Kowalczyk R (2015) European Bison as a Refugee Species? Evidence from Isotopic Data on Early Holocene Bison and Other Large Herbivores in Northern Europe. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0115090. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115090
(29) Lynch, A. H., Hamilton, J., & Hedges, R. E. (2008). Where the wild things are: aurochs and cattle in England. Antiquity, 82(318), 1025-1039
(30) Kuemmerle, T., Hickler, T., Olofsson, J., Schurgers, G., & Radeloff, V. C. (2012). Refugee species: which historic baseline should inform conservation planning?. Diversity and distributions, 18(12), 1258-1261
(31) van Vuure, T. (2015) Is the wisent (bison bonasus) indigenous to the Netherlands and belgium? Lutra 58 (1): 35-43
(32) van Vuure, T. (2014) On the origin of the Polish konik and its relation to Dutch nature management. Lutra 57: 111-130
(33) Van Vuure, T. (2002). History, morphology and ecology of the Aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius). Lutra 45: 1-16
(34) The Tauros programme - The search for a new icon for European wilderness
(35) Stitchting Taurus (Taurus Foundation)
(36) New Tauros breeding site opened in the Danube Delta, Romania. Rewilding Europe 22 October 2015
(37) Jurassic Farm: Can we bring prehistoric bovines back from extinction? Kristan Lawson, Modern Farmer 10 September 2014
(38) Species Restoration, True Nature Foundation
(39) Large herd of Sayaguesa cattle brought to Velebit for the Tauros Programme. Rewilding Europe 28 November 2014