An area of forest near Bristol will see once-native bears and wolves live together for the first time in Britain in 1,000 years.
Harking back to a medieval era when packs of wolves, European brown bears, lynxes, and wolverines roamed the woods, the conservation project hopes to ignite the public’s imagination and spark a debate about rewilding areas of forest across the country.
Before anyone gets worried their summer picnic in the park is going to be interrupted by a hungry bear — the animals will be in a large wooded paddock. But, excitingly, from July 25 members of the public will be able to view them from the safety of a raised walkway.
The project, called Bear Wood, is part of Bristol Zoological Society’s Wild Place Project. The aim is to get people thinking about how much of the UK actually used to be covered in woodlands and had a much greater diversity of wildlife.
They want the public to consider what can be done now to regain some of that wilderness, especially since scientists and activists like Greta Thunberg have called for rewilding to help tackle climate change.
Campaigners argue that encouraging restoration of forests will increase plantlife and biodiversity and draw more carbon dioxide out of the air, keeping the atmosphere cooler.
In an interview with the Guardian, Justin Morris, the chief executive of Bristol Zoological Society, said the team are "excited to see [the bears and wolves] together in the same space."
He explained that at the moment the different species were being kept separate and would start to be introduced to one another after a few weeks.
“The keepers want to be sure the bears are settled,” said Morris. “We’re keen to do it as soon as they can but will wait until the animal team are confident they are ready.
“They should be fine," he added. "These animals would coexist in the wild. This is their habitat. You see the bears up the trees and realise how perfectly evolved they are to live here.”
But it has been a long time since the two species have lived together. No one is exactly sure when brown bears became exctinct in the UK, but it’s thought to be at least 1,000 years ago, while wolves could be found in the wild until the 17th century.
Lynxes, the not-quite-a-big cat but still a pretty magestic wild cat and once Europe’s third largest predator, are thought to have stopped roaming free in the UK 1,300 years ago.
The multimillion-pound Bear Wood project is a fascinating opportunity to get a glimpse of that time — before big cities and the industrial revolution. Especially since the ancient woodland these animals once called home now only covers 2% of the country.
“I’m keen that we as a conservation charity proactively engage with questions such as climate change and rewilding. I really hope this exhibit gives us that opportunity to do that,” Morris explained.
Ahead of the move to put them together Will Walker, an animal manager at Wild Place, is getting nervous. “We know they don’t compete for the same foods but putting two large species together is always going to be a bit nerve-racking,” he told the Guardian.
Walker added that so far observing the bears in a more natural habitat has been a bit alarming already — as they are huge and the young ones have been climbing up the tall trees. “They weigh 100kg or more and are climbing 10 metres to the tops of trees, obviously they are designed for that but that has worried me… but they’ve been fine.”
The project is funded by European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development as well as grants and donations. Visit Wildplace.org to find out more.