The bison of Wiltshire

Kim John finds out more about how one couple have turned their passion and interest in bison into a successful, diversified enterprise.

You wouldn’t usually expect to see bison grazing the fields of a south Wiltshire valley, but at Bush Farm, that’s exactly what you’ll find. As a young boy, Colin Seaford was fascinated by one of the first colour wildlife films – The Vanishing Prairie – where he saw the beasts in full colour, navigating their way across the plains. “I made a bet with my fellow agricultural students that I’d own a breeding herd of bison by the time I was 40,” he says. He has since gone on to win that £5 bet.

I made a bet with my fellow agricultural students that I’d own a breeding herd of bison by the time I was 40

Colin Seaford

Preparing the farm

Colin and his wife Pepe came to Bush Farm about 30 years ago. They already had a herd of bison established and had very strict criteria for their agent to find them the right property – it needed to have water access and strictly no footpaths. Having spent some time looking at farms in North Devon but finding nothing suitable, the couple finally settled on Bush Farm in South Wiltshire. One small triangle of the land that has a footpath running through it, but the rest is completely free of public access – an incredibly important requirement when it comes to keeping bison.

Preparing the 100-acre site for the arrival of the bison was not particularly challenging for the couple, but some extra safety measures are needed, including keeping them behind high mesh gates with secure locks. “They will use their horns to lift your average five-bar gate off its hinges,” he explains. The animals are kept in their fields by deer fencing.

After installing the fencing, one of the first things the pair did was establish a lake in one of the fields. The animals swim and drink from the lake, which is set at the bottom of the valley, recreating a scene you might expect to see in Yellowstone Park. A small viewing platform at the top of the fi eld is an incredible spot from which to watch them graze.

The American bison

When they established their herd of American bison in 1986, Colin and Pepe were the only bison breeders in the UK and the only keepers of bison outside zoos for the next 12 years.

They worked with zoos and wildlife parks to establish and bring new breeding lines to the herd and, as time went on, worked with other farmers who wanted to establish bison herds. In 1993 they formed the British Bison Association, which provides advice and guidance on keeping bison. In addition, they also spoke at conferences on keeping and breeding bison.

You can see what they’re thinking, and you build a connection with them

Colin Seaford

As a result of this work, the couple grew a strong community of 17 bison farmers in the UK. However, new regulations and bovine TB forced many to give up, and there are now only four farmers left who farm them. Colin explains that American bison are far friendlier than their European counterparts. “You can see what they’re thinking, and you build a connection with them,” he says. “As long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.” Bison still require bovine TB testing, which can be very stressful for the animals – and, of course, these large beasts need special handling equipment, with the average cattle crush not quite fit for the job. Using a combination of motorway barriers and railway sleepers, Colin built his own handling equipment at Bush Farm. The animals can jump 6ft, so appropriate care and precaution must be taken when handling them. Bison is also an excellent source of red meat – low in fat, high in protein and rich in flavour. Research has shown that it is a highly nutrient-dense food because of its proportion of protein, fat, minerals and fatty acids to caloric value - one serving of bison meat provides 34% of the daily recommended amounts of protein, 32% of zinc, 33% of iron, 14% of vitamin B6 and 42% of the antioxidant selenium. Bison meat is also non-allergenic, making it easier to digest for people with a red meat intolerance. Bush Farm now sells the meat in its on-site shop, online and to the Rhug Estate. The pair used to have a catering truck at events and farmers markets in the region, with patrons queueing for as long as 45 minutes to have one of their famous bison burgers. Prices are kept competitive, with the retail sale price of bison being in line with the best-quality beef.

A diverse enterprise

Colin and Pepe also have a herd of elk on the farm, brought in from Flamingo Land in Yorkshire and a potato farm near Arbreath. The elk are also bred to sell the meat from the on-site shop and for online orders. The farm used to open for day visitors, but after discovering that they would require a zoo licence to continue, the couple decided to cease that side of the business. They still host regular, organised camps and events, and the past two years have been the busiest for their woodland glamping and campsite, with views of the bison on the hillside. Guests at the campsite can enjoy fresh bison and elk meat from the shop and learn all about the history of bison, spanning five million years, in the museum. A range of bison-related paraphernalia can also be purchased from the gift shop.

While Colin and Pepe have begun the process of reducing the size of their bison herd from 104 animals to around 40, they aren’t quite ready to call it a day just yet. Colin’s passion for bison, which started when he was a young boy, is still as strong as ever and, in his own words, is a “childhood dream fulfilled”

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