Are there bears in Scotland?
There are no wild bears in Scotland; they now only exist in zoos and wildlife parks.
This wasn't always the case; however, large populations of brown bears roamed Scotland's landmass for thousands of years but went extinct in Scotland around 450 AD (early medieval period), exterminated from overhunting.
I can already hear you sigh a breath of relief if you plan some activities in some of Scotland's wild areas... I, too, am thankful that there are no longer wild bears in Scotland!
European brown bears / Eurasian brown bear
The European brown bear (Eurasian brown bear) inhabited Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England 1600 years ago. Although they are of least concern in conservation, they are becoming rarer in Europe and have already vanished from Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The highest concentrations are in northern Europe and Russia.
Description of brown bears
Brown bears can have a variety of brown fur colours, red-brown, yellow-brown, and a very dark brown, almost black. Their thick coats can reach about 10 cm in length.
They have large round heads with rounded ears and a solid broad skull with a mouth bristling with 42 teeth, including predatory teeth for killing and tearing meat from prey. Bear's large clawed paws can also be used to inflict lethal wounds and catch red deer and fish (salmon is a favourite). Despite being meat-eaters, they can also forage nuts, berries and plants.
The giant male bears can reach a weight of 481 KG (1058 lb / 75 stone) and live for up to 30 years. They can also run faster than you (but only for short periods). Brown bears are the largest carnivores on the European continent.
Where are the highest populations of brown bears in Europe?
The Ural mountain region of Russia is home to the largest population of brown bears. Closely followed by Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Smaller populations exist in Albina, Serbia, Montenegro, Ukraine and Greece.
Brown bears at Blair Drummond Safari Park
Although Blair Drummond Safari Park (near Stirling) did have European brown bears they have now moved to a new location at the Scottish Deer Centre to the west of Cupar. Scottish Deer Centre is a fantastic park in its own right, with many species of deer from around the world and wolves, otters, wild cats, and birds of prey.
Blair Drummond itself shouldn't be overlooked on your travels, though; it is a super park filled with the most exotic animals found worldwide, including elephants, rhinoceros, lions, giraffes, tigers and even penguins. There is also an excellent sea lion show and a drive-through safari section... a lovely day out with the family.
Polar bears at Highland Wildlife Park
Wait, what? Polar bears in Scotland? Yes, there are polar bears in Scotland at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie / Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. This park is run by the Royal Zoological Society and has run a very successful breeding program with their two male polar bears, Walter and Arktos and single female, Victoria.
The first polar bear born in the United Kingdom in 25 years was "Hamish", born in December 2017. Hamish was moved to Doncaster's Yorkshire Wildlife Park in 2020 to continue with the European Endangered Species Programme.
December 2021 welcomed another newborn at the park. Named "Brodie" via a prize draw (and raising £70,000 for a new project), this is a great opportunity to see a young polar bear cub in Scotland.
Inchnadamph Bone Caves, Sutherland
Amazingly an intact polar bear skull was found in the Inchnadamph Bone Caves in Sutherland, north Scotland, in 1927. The skull was dated at over 18000 years old and was likely washed into the cave. Further exploration of the cave network also uncovered a near-complete skeleton of a male brown bear.
Hercules the grizzly bear
Hercules was a tame "grizzly bear" who lived with former wrestling champion Andy Robin. Highland Wildlife Park sold the cub to Robin in 1975 for £50, and with the help of his wife Maggie, they kept the bear as a pet for 25 years at their home in Auchterarder, Perthshire.
The bear was very tame, often seen playing with young children, and loved ice cream. Weighing in at 30 st (191 kg), Hercules was an enormous animal and became a poster child for the Scottish Tourism Board throughout the 1980s.
Hercules famously escaped into the wild while filming a TV advertisement for toilet roll in 1980. After 3 weeks in North Uist, he was found 20 miles from where he went missing and reunited with his owners.
Hercules died in 2001, aged 25, and was buried in North Uist in the area he went for his adventure. There is a statue memorialising Hercules at Langass Woodland where more can be found about this unusual but well-loved bear.
Giant Pandas & Sun bears
Edinburgh zoo is home to two giant pandas and the rare Malayan sun bear.
Giant pandas are not a native species of Scotland but are very popular with the general public and tourists visiting Edinburgh. Although it's a shame to have them in captivity, the zoo has had some success with its breeding program.
The Malayan sun bears were rescued from Cambodia, where they were kept in small cages as pets. Thankfully through the charity "Free the Bears", they were moved to Edinburgh zoo in 2010 and had a much better quality of life.
Scottish bears / Caledonian bear
In history, "Caledonian bears" were considered fearsome beasts. In the year 80, a roman poet named Martial wrote that a captive bear gruesomely killed a criminal as part of the inaugural events of Rome's Colosseum. Caledonian bears were considered the strongest bears by the Roman empire.
Reintroduction of bears to Scotland
Paul Lister from the Alladale Estate in Sutherland, north Scotland has been campaigning for bears and wolves to be reintroduced on their 23,000-acre estate and surrounding lands.
The local population and farmers have expressed safety concerns over reintroducing large carnivore species to the countryside. Even if the entire area was fenced off to prevent bears and wolves from escaping, it contradicts the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, allowing a right of access over most land areas in Scotland.
Beavers were successfully reintroduced in recent years, but I don't think people are as worried about being mauled to death by a beaver! The Scottish Government currently have no plans to reintroduce bears to Scotland. Pine martens have only just survived overhunting by humans and have made a comeback in recent years.
Cairngorms National Park
This beautiful national park in central Scotland has been considered a location for reintroducing many extinct animals from Scotland's past. These include brown bears, auroch, elk, reindeer, lynx and wolves. Great crested newts and some species of birds such as the Eurasian crane, bitter and crested tit have also been considered.
Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) requested a report from Dr David Hetherington on the viability of reintroducing these native animals back to the national park. Out of all of the animals listed, he found the greatest potential to reintroduce lynx, stating they are the least damaging to humans and livestock.
Bears in England?
There are no wild bears in England either, but the Bristol Zoological Society is currently showcasing a fantastic project named "Bear Wood". Over 7.5 acres, four species of animals presently extinct in England have been reintroduced over this small area, bears, grey wolves, lynxes and wolverines. There are walkways throughout the site, so they can be observed safely.
What other species have gone extinct in Scotland?
Eurasian beaver - hunted to extinction but recently reintroduced; numbers are thought to be in the hundreds now in the Scottish wilderness.
Eurasian lynx - Not seen in Scotland for 1500 years; some groups would like to reintroduce it but have met resistance from farmers and safety groups.
Wild boar - Extinct in Scotland since the 1500s but programmes to bring back wild boars have been successful - almost too successful - with large populations in the Great Glen, Dumfries and Galloway, Tayside and Speyside. Around 5000 exist in the wild.
Eurasian wolf - The last official sighting of this wolf was in 1680 and soon became extinct in Scotland. Various groups would like to reintroduce these wolves back into the wild, but public safety remains a big issue.
Where can I see bears in Scotland?
You can see bears in captivity at the following locations:
The only Disney film set in Scotland features a large brown bear. Princess Merida's mother is transformed into a bear in this story, so it might make foreigners wrongly believe that bears are native species in Scotland today. There are no fearsome European brown bears in Scotland.
So there you have it, there are no wild bears in Scotland... you can explore the national parks or forests without fear of being gobbled up! Just watch out for the midges! Scotland is a very safe country.
Please do visit the bear exhibits at Highland Wildlife Park, Blair Drummond Safari Park or Edinburgh zoo; all offer a brilliant day out.
Further reading: dangerous animals in Scotland.
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