Another erstwhile resident of Britain is the Brown Bear. It figures in many of our legends and folktales and it is for the bear that the legendary King Arthur was named. These lumbering giants still roamed our land until around a thousand years ago, when overhunting and the horrific but popular ‘sport’ of bear baiting finally rendered them extinct in Britain.
Along with meat and fur, one of the major factors that inspired the hunters was fear; they are powerful creatures. Bears and wolves were the major predators and even the local lords and kings supported their eradication, offering bounty to those who killed them. Bears were historically carnivores, with their diet being 80% meat. That changed with the changing environment. By the Middle Ages, that had halved and for modern bears, meat makes up only 10-15% of their diet, though they will feed on sheep when they can, making them a very real threat to farmed animals as well as to the deer it is hoped they would help control.
Across Europe, there are several populations of the bear, including a small and endangered group in the mountains between France and Spain and a reintroduced group in Italy which, in spite of some attacks on humans, was hailed as an environmental success. Statistically, they are not a great threat to humans. In Scandinavia, where there is a healthy population of bears, three people were recorded killed by them in the last century… as many as were killed by sheep in a similar period in the UK, while cows have killed 74 people here in the last 15 years. Figures alone do not tell the whole story though… the deaths by cow were caused largely through inappropriate human behaviour… but then, that might also be the case for the sheep and the bears. We do not always have the respect that we should for the animals with whom we share our planet, expecting them to conform to our needs and behaviour.
More controversial than the reintroduction of the lynx is the tentative hope to reintroduce a small population of brown bears to the UK. There are, as always arguments both for and against the reintroduction of any animal, let alone a top predator. Whilst there are undoubtedly legitimate fears for livestock, it must also be borne in mind that we have changed our landscape over the centuries and just because it was once suitable for the animals we seek to reintroduce, it does not automatically follow that it would be so now. Nor do we ourselves have the skill and knowledge we once had to live side by side with large animals… we would have to learn all over again and in the interim period, there would doubtless be outcry against predation and possibly human tragedies. It is not a straightforward debate with black and white answers.
I have to wonder though, whether in our little island we have become spoiled by our lack of predators over the past thousand years. Our largest wild carnivore is the badger, our only venomous snake, the adder and our indigenous spiders, in spite of my recent escapade, give little cause for concern. We do not have an inalienable right to the land or our use of it. We too are animals… probably the most efficient and deadly predator on earth… and as dependent upon a healthy ecosystem as any other creature. Perhaps that ecosystem would benefit from the balance provided by the bears.
Some of the arguments both for and against rewilding can be found in this BBC Earth article that includes details of the reintroduction of the beavers, that had been absent for over 400 years.