Some facts about bison

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BIOLOGY

Bison and the Białowieża Forest are good match – the animal and the woodland that did not survive anywhere else on European lowland. Bison is probably the only forest inhabitant which makes the man step out of its way – not because of danger but rather because the bison does not feel like doing it.

An encounter with a bison is an unforgettable experience, as nobody can be indifferent to their primeval beauty. Sometimes, especially in winter, bisons may be seen in fields and meadows surrounding the forest. With some luck, a whole herd can be observed deep in the forest. It even happens that a big male stands in the middle of a road, making cars stop. Who did not see a bison in the wild, however, can visit the Show Reserve located by the main road to Białowieża or, in wintertime, go to one of the feeding sites.

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Winter is the period when bisons make large groups and gather around hay racks or hay barracks. Early in spring they diversify their diet with bark and sprouts of some trees and bushes. When the forest starts getting green, winter groups divide into smaller ones. Bisons roam the forest in search of herbs and grass that are basic for their diet.

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In autumn, from August to October, the breeding period begins and males can start some fights, which is not very frequent. Bison pregnancy lasts more or less 260 days. Usually one calf is born every two years. The newly born calf weighs from 16 to 35 kg. The cow licks the calf clean and after about 30 minutes the little one manages to stand up and starts feeding on its mother’s milk.

Bisons live up to about 30 years.

Enormous and majestic, called the rulers of the forest, they have become symbols of the Białowieża National Park.

 

HISTORY

In the past bisons used to live almost all over Europe, however, development of civilization and agriculture, as well as hunting, led to gradual extinction of the species. In the majority of western European countries bisons were exterminated in the Middle Ages. In the 18th century the Białowieża Forest was their last refuge. Here, they had the status of royal game and were protected.

World War I changed this situation. Being easy targets, bisons were slaughtered by both soldiers and local people. The last bison in the Białowieża Forest died in 1919.

Significantly, beginning with the 18th century bisons were sent to zoological garden and private zoos. In 1923 the International Society for the Protection of European Bison was created. They made a register of surviving pure-blood bisons – it turned out that only 54 were left and only some of them had any value for potential breeding.

The first period of restitution

Between 1920 and 1928 bisons were absent from the forest.

In 1929 a special reserve was created. In the same year a male Borusse and a female Biserta were brought to the reserve. A year later they were joined by one more female – Biskaya. Thus, one of the most significant breeding reserves in the world was set up. After World War II there were 44 bisons in the reserve, and in 1950 – already 65 specimens.

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The second period of restitution

In 1952 two bisons were let free in the Polish part of the forest. They were followed by another 38 specimens. (In Belarus it took place in the ‘60s.) The animals had all the features and behavior of the wild bisons from the pre-extermination period.

Nowadays in the Białowieża Forest there are about 900 bisons, which constitutes the biggest herd in the world. Unfortunately, the border leads to isolation of Polish and Belarusian populations.

There are more than 4500 European bisons in the world, among which 3000 live in free or half-free herds. Białowieża Forest bisons, captured and sent to other countries, had huge impact on salvation of the species. Nevertheless, bisons still need to be protected, especially due to destruction of their habitats.

Bison’s history shows how easy it is to exterminate a species in a very short time, and how much effort  is involved in its restitution.

 

Bisons’ Show Reserve

The first reserve was created in 1929 to save bisons from extintion.

The present reserve dates back to 1937. Initially, it was designed as a restitution place of forest tarpan (Eurasian wild horse), eventually, however, in 1955 an enclosure for bisons was opened and made available for tourists. Gradually the reserve was enlarged and more species were shown here.

Animals that can be seen in the reserve are: bisons, forest tarpans (not pure-blood), elks, deer, roe deer, wild boars, wolf, lynx and ‘żubronie’ (hybrids of cattle and bison). Animals live in spacious enclosures with natural vegetation.

The best time to visit the reserve is in the morning, when animals do not hide from the sun and do not rest out of sight. Sightseeing takes about an hour. Visitors move along paths between enclosures. Souvenirs can be bought by the entrance to the reserve.

Access to the reserve is very easy, as it is situated by the main Hajnówka – Białowieża road (precisely 4 km from Białowieża), and there is a sign by the road pointing at the reserve’s direction.

Opening hours:

   in high season (15.04. – 15.10.) every day: 9:00 – 17:00

   out of season from Tuesday to Sunday: 8:00 – 16:00

   Tel.: +48 85 681 23 98

 

Bisons’ refuges and feeding sites

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In summer bisons scatter all over the forest but in winter they gather in herds and look for food together. In wintertime in the Białowieża Forest bisons were fed with some extra hay already in the 18th century. Hay is collected for them and stacked in hay barracks, which are frequently visited by bisons. When longing for a meeting with these animals, such hay barracks are probably the best place to watch them in winter.


Europejski Fundusz Rolny na rzecz Rozwoju Obszarów Wiejskich. Europa inwestująca w obszary wiejskie. Projekt współfinansowany ze środków Unii Europejskiej w ramach osi 4 Leader. Program Rozwoju Obszarów Wiejskich na lata 2007-2013. Projekt zrealizowany przez Stowarzyszenie Metamorphosis. Instytucja zarządzająca Programem Rozwoju Obszarów Wiejskich na lata 2007-13 Minister Rolnictwa i Rozwoju Wsi