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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

British Bears: Wild, Baited, and Dancing

There is much talk today, and some action too, regarding re-wilding. Re-wilding in the sense of bringing back extinct indigenous British species of birds, mammals, and so forth.

There has been a successful re-introduction of beavers, an accidental reintroduction of boars, and arguments for the reintroduction of wolves and lynxes. But no one, as yet, has suggested the reintroduction of the European brown bear, once a common sight in British forests. 'Once', however, was along time ago. Recent research by the University of Nottingham has suggested that British bears either died out very early in The Bronze Age, even in the Neolithic, or in early post Roman Britain, say between 425 and 594 AD. These last dates are an interpretation of bear bones discovered in a Yorkshire cave. However, this is hotly disputed as the alternative suggestion is they weren't wild bears at all but Roman bears, kept for entertainment, which had subsequently gone feral until dying out around 500 AD. I had always been led to believe that bears roamed wild here during Roman times, but the current view is that the archaeology of bears from this period relates to captive bears, brought here from mainland Europe. The same argument is used to explain bear artefacts from Saxon times. Without a Roman or Saxon unequivocal written reference being found the argument may be difficult to resolve.

The main artefact found is bearskins. Highly prized in a cold British winter. What we do know is that in The Middle Ages such skins were definitely imported.

Why did our native bear die out, and where did it last live free? The answer to the second question is possibly easier to answer than the first, namely in The Caledonian Forest in Scotland. The answer to the first question may be a mix of lost habitat, increased hunting, especially for its skin and for protection for growing numbers of domestic livestock.

Two other species of bear also once lived here. The fearsome cave bear from the way distant past, evidence found for example in the caves of Cheddar, and the polar bear, extinct at the end of The Ice Age, of which the only evidence comes from a 1927 archaeological find in a Scottish cave.

Do we wish to see any of these three species of bear re-wilded here? In the case of the cave bear we would have to recreate the animal in the first place and that is highly unlikely to happen. In the case of the polar bear not possible due to climate change, and the reintroduction of the brown bear is unlikely to gain much support from the general public let alone the farming community, as evidenced in Italy, Spain, and France. However, go to South Gloucestershire shortly and you will be able, via a walkway in the sky, to observe bears, wolves, and lynxes living wild in a recreated landscape (securely fenced!) in a scientific experiment conducted by Bristol Zoo, It is called 'Bear Wood'. It already exists and awaits its first opening to the public. That will be plenty exciting enough for me. I don't wish to have a close encounter with a bear on The Downs.

Of course, just because historically we have not had wild bears in Britain does not mean we had no bears here at all. Forget zoos, we had bears here throughout history for the purposes of bear baiting (a pack of dogs set onto a bear tied to a post) and dancing or performing bears (dreadfully ill treated during their training). Bear baiting was finally banned by law in 1835, although attempts had been made to do so under The Commonwealth in the 17th century. The reason in 1835 was concern over cruelty, whereas the concern in Cromwell's time was the gambling that was so closely associated with bear baiting, and so disapproved of by The Puritans.

The great era of English bear baiting was the late 16th and early 17th centuries when the South Bank in London became the focus of the 'sport' with specially built bearpits constructed. Elizabeth I was said to have been particularly keen on the sport. In these times bears, often bred on The Hackney Marshes, were given names, such as Harry Hunks, and the famous Sackerson (mentioned by Shakespeare in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'). In other words they were treated very much like racehorses are today by the English gambling community..

Dancing bears could still be found in England post World War One, but gradually public attitudes changed and today dancing bears have all but disappeared in Europe and indeed are on massive decline in Asia too. The last circus bear to perform in Britain, Fred, was retired to Canada in 2000. I have since seen a bear perform in the indoor circus at Riga in Latvia. it was a poor old thing that had been so mutilated it could not have hurt a fly. The Russian circus remains committed to performing bears, and indeed performing animals in general.

So, today, only zoos in Britain contain bears to be seen - and the future of zoos as places to gawp at wild animals is seriously challenged. So it's off to South Gloucestershire and Bear Wood for me where the bears roam free as they once did right across our island - just hold tight to the sides of the walkway.

And gentleman, please don't purchase bear grease online to cure your advancing baldness. It's cruel and it doesn't work.

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