Invasion of the 94-stone body snatchers

Don’t run: At 30mph, a brown bear can outrun Usain Bolt, the fastest man on Earth. © Alamy

Is it time to stop the return of the bear? Once threatened with extinction, these wild beasts are making a comeback, raising serious concerns about the dangers to people and farm animals.

If you go down to the woods today, you might want to watch your back. The British countryside is still bear-free, but across the rest of Europe, your chances of bumping into Ursus arctos are on the rise.

That’s what happened to 12-year-old Alessandro Franzoi, a few days ago, walking in the Italian Alps. Standing two-metres tall on its hind legs, weighing nearly 100 stone (600 kilos), with claws 10 centimetres long that can easily rip off a human leg, a fully-grown adult brown bear is a terrifying sight.

But Alessandro did exactly the right thing to stay safe: he avoided eye-contact and walked calmly and slowly down the mountain. Afterwards, he said, “It was the best day of my life; a dream come true.”

Why are these dangerous animals roaming free? In the Middle Ages, they were hunted to near extinction. But, in the last two decades, conservationists have re-introduced the keystone species to alpine forests and there are now 17,000 bears in Europe.

Bear fans argue they boost tourism and enrich the environment, supporting a diverse ecosystem in a process called rewilding. But farmers are not happy. Although mostly vegetarian, hungry bears will attack livestock and the EU has had to offer farmers compensation to stop them reaching for their guns.

A minority wants to see the bear return to the UK. Last year, four bears arrived near Bristol. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a multi-millionaire has plans to introduce bears onto his Highland estate.

So, is it time to stop the return of the bear?

It’s no picnic

Some say, yes, rewilding has gone too far. These animals not only threaten farmers’ livestock, but they also prevent us from enjoying the outdoors.

Others say, no, the dangers have been blown out of all proportion. The vast majority of bears do not present a risk to humans.

You Decide

  1. Would you manage to stay calm if you were followed home by a bear?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to educate people about what to do if they encounter a bear.

Some People Say...

“When all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.”

Roger Yorke Edwards (1924-2011), Canadian biologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
One study published last year showed there were 291 bear attacks in Europe between 2000 and 2015. The number of incidents has been rising each year as the bear population increases. Although the males are larger, it is mothers protecting their cubs that result in most violent encounters. Bears are protected by law in Europe, so it is illegal to hunt, buy, or sell them without a licence.
What do we not know?
There are two important questions we need to ask. First, what is our countryside for? Conservationists and rewilders believe the land should be restored to how it was before humans changed it, but the countryside has important farming and leisure uses that need to be considered. Secondly, how safe are wild bears? Biologists argue that humans are a bigger threat to bears than they are to us. But would you go for a walk in the woods if you knew there were half-tonne carnivores lurking in the bushes?

Word Watch

Ursus arctos
The scientific, Latin name for the European brown bear, which used to inhabit the ancient forest that covered most of Europe, 1,000 years ago.
Middle Ages
Between the 5th to the 15th Century.
Keystone species
Some animals play a major role in maintaining their habitat and ecosystems. Deer strip woodland of vegetation and, by controlling the deer population, bears help preserve forests and their wildlife.
Tourism
Supporters want to create national parks like Yellowstone in the US, where bison, grizzly bears, and elk attract four million visitors a year.
Rewilding
Farming has changed most of our countryside, squeezing out wild plants and animals, creating a “biological desert”. Rewilding aims to bring back the lost diversity, making a more interesting environment free from the work of human hands.
Vegetarian
Three-quarters of a bear’s diet is made up of nuts, berries, and grasses. However, in order to put on weight for their winter sleep, they will look for the flesh of dead animals and hunt small mammals.
Livestock
Animals, such as cows, horses, chickens, pigs, and sheep, raised on farms to work or for their meat, milk, eggs, milk, fur, leather, or wool.
EU
The European Union is a political and economic group of 27 countries that are mainly in Europe.
Compensation
Something, usually money, given to someone for their loss, suffering, or injury.
Minority
A poll in January showed 30% of people in the UK were in favour of reintroducing bears. It is the least popular mammal to be brought back. The most popular is the beaver, with 76% in favour of its reintroduction.

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