The Wilder Blean project, like many of its peers, was largely inspired by the work of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera.in his influential book Grazing ecology and forest history, published in 2000, Vera questioned the prevailing view that the vegetation of the lowlands of Central and Western Europe was once dominated by enclosed forests. Because of this assumption, agriculture gets a lot of credit for increasing biodiversity because grazing livestock produces different types of vegetation, he wrote. But Villa believes that this theory ignores the influence of wildlife, especially large herbivores, which may have played a similar role in creating more diverse landscapes.
To make his argument (and not without dissent), Villa draws on evidence including the effects of wildebeest grazing in the Serengeti and prehistoric pollen samples, and concludes that today’s conservationists need to update their frame of reference. He called for the removal of large areas from agriculture and forestry, and the reintroduction of once-wild mammals. “Cows, horses, bison, red deer, elk, roe deer and wild boars will have to act like wild animals again,” he wrote. “Without these ungulates, the survival of natural diversity would not be possible in the long run.”
Not all herbivores are created equal when it comes to ecosystem engineering. Bison are in the middle when it comes to feeding habits; they are both herbivores, grazing, and browsers, handling woody vegetation such as branches. And they eat a lot. “Peeling a tree or shrub over a year or a few years has a much bigger impact than taking some leaves from time to time,” Camp said. For this reason, bison has been introduced to several rewilding projects in continental Europe, one of which is located in the sand dunes of Kraansvlak on the Dutch coast, an area the Wilder Blean team is set to visit.
Robbie Still makes macro observations while Kunzmann collects ground vegetation data. As GIS and Remote Sensing Officer for the Kent Wildlife Foundation, he oversees the project’s technology – a conservation Q. The team plans to take aerial images of the entire site at 20cm resolution by sending a DJI matrix drone and methodically fly it above the treeline. “We don’t just zoom in on the remote; it goes up and follows a pre-planned route,” Steele said.
He will use the open source software OpenDroneMap to process the imagery, using different sensors and tools to gather information about vegetation. In addition to overall coverage, he can determine the width of a tree by measuring the diameter of the canopy, and the height of a tree by measuring the difference between the drone’s position and what it perceives. Given that the forest was formerly home to conifer plantations, it is now mostly composed of younger, smaller trees arranged in rows of rigid trees – unsuitable for biodiversity. “We want it to be balanced, so it’s more diverse,” he said.
Using multispectral imaging, which picks up ultraviolet and infrared light, as well as the visible spectrum, Still can even tell if a tree is deciduous or coniferous based on the color characteristics of its leaves: the dark green of conifers distinguishes them from light-colored conifers. Deciduous plants. This imaging can even provide insight into the health of trees: The pigment chlorophyll, which is responsible for photosynthesis, absorbs visible light, while plant cells reflect near-infrared light. Algorithms that calculate the difference between various reflected wavelengths can give you an idea of how well a plant is photosynthesizing — an indicator of its general fitness.
Still’s team conducted their first drone survey in the spring of 2022, when the trees were still dropping their leaves. They will repeat the survey a year later (after the bison arrives) to see what has changed. “Monitoring is very important in ecology, but it’s often overlooked,” Steele said. “Not because of any oversight, just because of time.”