Did you know that there is a herd European bison roaming a stone’s throw from the centre of Haarlem? Next to the largest dune lake of the bison area Kraansvlak in Zuid-Kennermerland National Park, you might have chance to spot them – and, from September, you could join the Bison Trail to observe them up-close.
A single bison, standing tall in a winter storm with snow collecting on its dense fur, hot breath steaming from its nostrils is a classic symbol of a rugged and wild environment. Hundreds of bison, grazing across expansive grasslands under an endless sky conjure scenes from a movie like Dances with Wolves and nudge our imagination toward unspoiled continents from an earlier time.
As a kid, I had the good fortune of seeing bison in the wild in Yellowstone National Park in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, USA. Yellowstone is one of the few remaining large and well-preserved places in the northern hemisphere where wildlife still roams free in a natural environment.
European Bison preserve
With those experiences of my youth as a reference point, I never expected to encounter a cousin of these great beasts in a wild setting in one of the smaller, flatter and more densely populated countries of the world. But here in Haarlem we are extremely lucky to have a European bison preserve right on our doorsteps at the Wisentproject Kraansvlak in Zuid-Kennemerland National Park.
Declared extinct in the wild 100 years ago, the largest land mammal in Europe can once again be found in nature. Still considered endangered, there are now 5000 bison living in natural environments across Europe. The first three bison arrived in the Netherlands in 2007 and were released into Kraansvlak, less than 7 kilometres from the centre of Haarlem. The preserve has expanded beyond 300 hectares, supporting a herd of more than 20 European bison.
There are many online resources to help you plan your bison viewing experience. I’ve put together a few tips that you won’t find online, but let’s start with the official viewing site which is at the far end of the Middenduin section of Zuid-Kennemerland National Park. There are two entrances to this part of the park. The main entrance is off of Duinlustweg in Overveen. The second entrance is off of the Zeeweg bike path almost directly across the N200 from the visitor centre of the National Park. This entrance can be a bit tricky to find but it gives you beautiful views over an experimental marsh from where you park your bike. It also brings you into the park much closer to the bison viewing area.
Tips for bison spotting
There is an online map which shows these entrances. It also claims to show where the bison are via GPS trackers, however I have never seen that feature working. I’ve made a copy of the map below and added some additional notes. The two best entrances are circled in red on the map. Don’t be fooled by the entrance at Krantje Lek (crossed off with an ‘X’ marked in black on the visual) – as there is no access to the bison area from this entrance unless you illegally climb a chain link fence and then find your way to the tunnel under the train tracks – which I have never done, by the way!
I have also marked some other areas besides the official viewing point where you can sometimes see the bison. The light blue markings indicate either walking or biking trails where you have good views into the bison preserve. If you walk into Middenduin, pay special attention along the trails which approach the official viewing area. I have frequently seen the bison very close to these trails in the thick woods. Sometimes just stopping and listening for loud crunching through the woods is the best way to find them.
The dark blue areas also offer good viewing opportunities. These areas are available for you to view the bison while walking your dog. Both are currently offline run areas with an electric fence separating your dog from the bison. Again, take your binoculars as the distances are expansive from these points.
The best viewing is from the Yellow Trail, which unfortunately is only open from September until March. This trail takes you through the western part of the preserve and gives you a chance to get up-close with the bison. And even if you don’t see them up-close, binoculars once again come in handy because there are several high dunes which give great views across the rest of the preserve (see photo below that I took on the Yellow Trail). Remember that the European bison are more at home in the woods, so scanning the edge of the forest often rewards you with a glimpse of the herd.
Seeing the bison is not as common as you would think. I spoke to a couple of people I met on the Yellow Trail last year. They have been hiking that trail twice a year since 2007 and have never seen the bison. So maybe I’ve been lucky, as I’ve been walking in and around the preserve at Kraansvlak dozens of times and have seen the herd eight or nine times. Sometimes they are very close by, sometimes they are very far away, but every time I see them it is special. So, even though you have another 3 months to wait before the Yellow Trail opens to visitors again, if you love wildlife and the outdoors, I’d highly recommend taking a walk to one of the other viewing areas this summer. Just the chance of seeing a European bison in open nature gives you a little feeling of ‘living wild’ in the heart of the Dutch Randstad.
If you don’t see them up-close, binoculars come in handy
Please note: Due to coronavirus measures, the visitor centre is temporarily closed and there are strict guidelines in place for visiting Zuid-Kennermerland National Park.
Check the website for the latest updates.