NORTH American bison have found they are as much at home on the range in Yorkshire as on the prairies.

A business venture to produce heart-friendly meat has led to the introduction of the animals on ancient parkland at Hornby Castle, near Bedale.

Owners Roger and Julia Clutterbuck plan to market the meat under the Hornby Castle brand as prime cuts and ready meals from their own shop. They also hope to supply restaurants in the area, some of which have already expressed interest.

Ultimately, they will sell bison to other farmers wanting to start their own herds.

Income from sales will help fund the restoration of the 550-acre parkland, which became run-down following the break-up of the estate in the 1930s.

The Clutterbucks have a three-year-old bull and six two-year-old cows and hope that Yorkshire's first "native" bison will be born next summer.

The herd arrived from Wiltshire just over a month ago and settled in quickly, sharing an enclosure with the estate's deer herd. "We wanted to get the bison from Canada, but the BSE outbreak there meant the EU closed down all its ruminant imports from North America," said Mr Clutterbuck.

The animals are slow to mature; in winter their systems "switch off" so they need little food but do not grow during four months of the year.

They are also renowned for surviving the biting North American winters. "If there is a howling gale and snowdrifts, they just go to the highest point in the field and put their faces to the wind and stand there," said Mr Clutterbuck. "Ordinary cattle go down into the dips for shelter and drown."

Although the animals are generally placid, ignoring a trailer-load of journalists and camera operators touring their field for half an hour, farmers need a Dangerous Wild Animals licence to keep them.

They are the largest land animals in North America and are distantly related to the European buffalo, whose milk produces mozzarella cheese.

"They are gentle giants, but they have a tendency to be single-minded; a full grown one weighs almost a tonne and you can't tell them where to go," said Mr Clutterbuck.

"However, they are remarkable because they will not cross a line, whether it's a single strand of wire or a railway line."

Bison - familiar as the American buffalo in Hollywood westerns - live for up to 35 years and the Clutterbucks expect to get about 30 calves from each dam.

The beasts will be slaughtered at 29 months, because of current post-BSE regulations, as they take about three years to mature properly.

The meat is low in cholesterol, has little fat and is sweeter, lighter in colour and finer textured than beef. It is hung for slightly less than three weeks and the buyer can tell at a glance whether the animal has led a stress-free life.

"When the raw meat is a very red, translucent colour, you know that it came from a happy bison," said Mr Clutterbuck.

"Unhappy bison don't kill well and you get a brown-grey meat because of the stress and it is honestly just good for dog food."

There are fewer than 150 North American bison in the UK and demand for their meat is growing, although the price - about £5 for a fillet steak - places it in the gourmet bracket.

Mrs Clutterbuck said the meat was easy to cook and demonstrated that by sealing a fillet steak on an hot oiled griddle pan for about three minutes a side and serving it simply with salt and black pepper.

Restoration of the parkland at Hornby Castle, financed by the bison venture, willl involve removing stock fences and returning the whole 550 acres to grass. Most of the area will then be opened up to riders and walkers.

"It is difficult to get a picture of what it would have originally looked like," said Mrs Clutterbuck. "The estate was broken up in the 1930s and most of the original documents were lost. What we are recreating is an approximation of the original but will be as close as we can get it and will certainly look very different from its current appearance."

The bison venture was set up with the help of a Rural Enterprise Scheme grant from Defra.

Rebecca Clarkson, of the Rural Development Service, said: "The manicured landscape of the 18th century deerparks grew out of a wilder, enclosed environment of medieval hunting parks and represents a significant period in landscape history.

"They were an important innovation and it is exciting to see a combination of old and new coming together at Hornby Castle to provide it with new income for the future."

Bill Langhammer, of Business Link York and North Yorkshire, which has also been involved, said the project was a great example of diversification.

"Farming faces many challenges and the Clutterbucks have spotted a niche in the market," he said.

"In a time when food scares are all too common, they are building the market for heart-friendly meat and providing a novel new food."