German aristocrat to reintroduce herd of eight to his private forest. They will be the first to wander in the wild in Germany since 1746
A forest-owning German aristocrat is to reintroduce bison into the wild in Western Europe for the first time in over 250 years.
Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg is set to introduce a herd of eight European bison to his 32,124-acre forest in North Rhine-Westphalia.
If the 79-year-old prince's plan works, Germany will be the first country west of Poland where animals, also known as wisent, will live in the wild once again.
However, there are fears the reintroduction of the wild, giant animals, which grow up to 6.5ft tall and weigh up to a ton, will scare away tourists and pose a hazard to hikers.
Nearly a decade in gestation, Prince Richard's plan is set to enter its critical phase after he was given final approval from the state Environment Ministry in Dusseldorf just before Christmas, Der Spiegel reports.
His 50sq/mile estate - roughly half the size of Manhattan - surrounds the city of Bad Berleburg and extends across many of the foothills of the Rothaar Mountains.
It is already home to about 300 wild sheep, 400 red deer, 600 wild boar and so many roe deer his seven groundsmen have given up trying to count them.
Now over the next few days workers will drive into Prince Richard's forest and take down the fence around an enclosure where his eight bison have been acclimatising to the environment since 2010.
Once that is done, the enormous bull, five cows and two calves will be free to roam. They will be the first of their species to wander wild in Germany since 1746.
But questions have been raised about the possible impact of the mammoth creatures. They will roam wherever the leader takes them, even along major roads and through nearby villages.
Officials and residents of Bad Berleburg, a city of some 20,000 people, have been largely in support of the plan, which they hope will bring tourists back following the decline of the German health spa industry.
However, residents of the High Sauerland region, just on the other side of the Rothaar Mountains, fear that the animals could wreck tourism, damage forests, and even interbreed with dairy herds.
Despite the backing of such an august individual as Prince Richard, the plan also met with scepticism from officialdom, with the state Environment Ministry putting together a long list of concerns that took scientists from four universities more than four years to answer.
Forestry economists eventually agreed that the bison herd could even be useful to forests, since they would keep ecologically valuable areas free from undergrowth - a task currently performed by forest workers.
And a doctoral candidate at the University of Siegen, Philip Schmitz, conducted a study which finally showed the flighty bison, despite their imposing size, posed little threat to humans.
After enlisting volunteers to approach the animals, he found they were far more likely to simply run away than make an attempt to charge people walking across their territory.