From ‘dangerous killers’ to the most admired animal on the mountainside; how the Cantabrian brown bear is finding a new place in a modern world.
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.
Deep in the Cantabrian Mountains in the very north of Spain, subpopulations of brown bears can be found tucked away, roaming, tumbling and prowling across the incredible landscape.
While it’s thought that Britain’s own native brown bear population died out around 1,000 years ago, many European subpopulations have survived and thrived in Cantabria, the Pyrenees, South Central Italy, the Carpathians, Scandinavia and across Russia.
There’s something so special about the brown bear. Ranging from deep chestnut to blonde rugged fur, these distinctive characters are a well-known feature of mountainous terrain throughout the world. Forget the cute and cuddly teddies on your bedroom floor; real live 350kg bears are majestic, powerful and mysterious.
Just west of Bilbao across the Cantabrian Mountains, the brown bear’s healthy (although small) population is a symbol of the region’s rich environment and its careful conservation work.
With peaks exceeding 7,000ft, dense forest and isolated plateaus, the Cantabrians host a fantastic range of habitat for the brown bear. Through painstaking habitat management, there are now more than 250 brown bears here (as of 2017), with regular surveys carried out on at least 40 females and their cubs.
As a ‘priority species’, granted special protection in Spain since 1973, numbers are on the rise.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Hunt or be hunted
Large omnivores living in close proximity. What could go wrong?
Until the mid-twentieth century, Cantabrian brown bears (Ursus arctos pyrenaicus) were hunted almost to extinction. They were viewed as pests and ferocious killers that needed to be eradicated.
In fact, bear killing was all the rage; something to be celebrated and cashed in on.
Retired miner Bernardo Santiago, who lives in the Cantabrian Mountains, remembers when parties of hunters would leave the village to go bear hunting. He says: “The bear fur was given to the children who filled it with hay. After that, the children went from door to door asking for a reward; a home might give them eggs, chorizo or some cash. Afterwards, you went to the village hall to get paid too.”
Photo Credit: Brown Bear, More Than Birds
Bears were also highly prized for their warm skins and their fat which was a common remedy for rheumatism when rubbed into the joints.
Up until the 17-18th centuries, Europe’s brown bear population was much more far-reaching. Now, thanks to human intervention, bears have been exiled to the remote mountains. This discord between humans and bears – the perception that bears are creeping around trying to steal your babies – has led to vastly depleted numbers. Across the board, it’s because of hunting, poaching and disregard for habitat that brown bears are of special conservation concern in Spain.
Old views are taking their time to change. Even now we still see practices that can be damaging for bear life.
Senior bears inhabit remote, safer spots, leaving only the precarious, human-filled habitats available for younger bears. These small brown bears don’t recognise the potential dangers of living close to a village, meaning they are more at risk from illegal trapping.
Evidence of bear traps and persecution has been seen in recent years, with deforestation and shows of violence between bears during the mating season also posing threats to their wellbeing.
A long journey
Brown bears can be found all over the globe but it’s only here in Spain that they have adapted to the warmer temperatures which can reach 23°C within the mountain range.
However, they have evolved in other ways too.
Bears are incredibly tolerant creatures and, some might say, pretty considerate! In some cases of close habitation with humans, diurnal bears have switched their habits to become nocturnal so they cause minimal conflict with human’s lifestyles.
This organic coevolution over thousands of years means that the two groups – both bear and human – work symbiotically with agriculture and the landscape to create the easiest way of living.
Bears and humans can live together – so long as it’s wanted by the humans.
The fear created around bears lacks scientific basis – it’s a thing of storybooks. Bears only attack people in very extreme situations and the probability of a ruckus is extremely low. There have been no lethal bear attacks in the Cantabrian Mountains for 200-300 years. In fact, you’re more likely to have your beehive ransacked or your fruit tree eaten!
With the stats in hand, we can see that views really are changing, and local people want to help save these incredible creatures they share the land with. It’s hard to believe but some former poachers have retrained as rangers, fighting to protect brown bears. The Cantabrian brown bear is now also the national symbol of Somiedo, a popular region in the area, showing a hearty welcome to this beautiful beast.
So, we’ve got to ask ourselves – what’s going right?
Eco-tourism is playing a massive role in driving forward conservation efforts. 80% of tourists coming to the area are nature seekers – it’s not uncommon to see a party rolling out of bed at 5am to spot their first brown bear of the day!
While we all know the benefits, eco-tourism can bring to an area, this activity must also be regulated. Wildlife enthusiasts must be mindful, respectful and now get too close; disturbing the bears (be it their routines, cubs or habitat) can cause detrimental issues for the population.
Teaching and education
Alliances with local people and education programmes mean less poaching and trapping, so that we can really see bears and people beginning to live in harmony. People born and bred in the upland villages are reaping the benefits of eco-tourism and the exciting word is spreading.
For many, the brown bear makes this extreme landscape complete and, with the ongoing help of amazing conservation work, the odds are good. The Cantabrian brown bear will continue to live peacefully with humans, flourish and always fill us with wonder.
Photo Credit: Brown Bear, More Than Birds
More Than Birds is a local wildlife company established in Lugueros, a tiny village with just 25 inhabitants in the heart of the Cantabrian Mountains.
More Than Birds specialises in one-day natural and cultural trips to observe wildlife (including Cantabrian brown bears, wild cats and other species endemic to the North West of Spain). It provides an overall experience of Spanish traditional culture to give their customers an authentic, unique hands-on trip of a lifetime. As a company, they seek to share rare and iconic wildlife of the Cantabrian Mountains to discerning customers while ensuring the utmost respect and ethics towards the targeted species.
Jennifer Lane is a freelance nature and outdoor writer based in Manchester.
She has a varied career in magazine publishing and has written for the RSPB and British Vogue about her ‘unusual’ birdwatching hobby. In 2018 she won a Northern Writers’ Award for fiction and is currently working on her third novel for children.
Follow her hiking and wildlife trips on Twitter and Instagram.
Sponsored by the Spanish Tourist Office