Searching for Britain’s bears

A new study has uncovered part of the elusive history of the brown bear

Before the last Ice Age, brown bears roamed all across Britain as the island’s largest predator. Once the ice had receded, they were a rarity. It’s thought that their numbers continued to decline into the Iron Age until they went extinct 1,000 years ago, but very little else was known about the British bears until recently.

Dr Hannah O’Regan from the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Nottingham conducted the first review of brown bear remains, and her study reveals that the species might have vanished from Britain earlier than we thought.

One of the main challenges was working out whether bear remains came from wild animals, imported skins or bears brought over from mainland Europe to dance and fight. Bears have long been associated with power, and their images were carved into gravestones and recreated in small figurines possibly intended to protect the souls of deceased children.

Examining remains ranging from single claws to full skeletons, Dr O’Regan came up with two possible scenarios. She believes brown bears either went extinct around 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age or clung on until the early Middle Ages, 1,500 years ago.

We may never know when or where the last wild bear in Britain breathed its last, but the research gives us a glimpse into the complex history of this impressive predator in the UK.


Photo: oilpaper/flickr