Are There Bears in Scotland? The Story of Wild Bears in Scotland
If you try to name as many Scottish animals as you can, your mind will undoubtedly wander to images of elusive wildcats, adorable red squirrels, and friendly Highland cows.
If you live in the UK, I’m sure the last animal that comes to mind is the brown bear, but bears are likely to be high on the list of international visitors.
After all, some areas of the Highlands are less populated than the Russian Steppes, so if they have bears (as do Finland, Norway, Estonia, Greece, and even Italy), surely Scotland does as well?
As a result, many people believe that the country is a big beast’s paradise, teeming with hulking bears and other hefty specimens.
So, in this article, I’ve covered all the bases and provided you with all the information you require.
Are bears present in Scotland? Can you make them out? Will they devour you? And will the rest of the article be filled with hypothetical questions like these?
Continue reading to find out!
Are There Bears in Scotland? (Wild bears)
No, Scotland does not have any wild bears. I apologize for disappointing you. That being said, there were a lot of them a long time ago. There were many brown bears in the country until about 1,500 years ago (or possibly much more recently, but more on that later).
Prior to that, approximately 18,000 years ago, Scotland was also home to polar bears. A polar bear skull was discovered in a cave at Inchnadamph, in the western Scottish Highlands, in 1927.
Despite this history, only a few bears remain in Scotland, and they are all in captivity. So you won’t come across any bears roaming the woods, lurking in the mountains, or snatching salmon from a river.
It’s the same throughout the UK—you won’t find wild bears in any other part of the country.
While polar bears have been extinct in Scotland for a very long time, scientists believe brown bears went extinct in the 5th century, between 425 and 594 AD. Others believe it was in the 8th or 9th centuries (or even later!). That brings us to…
When did Scottish bears become extinct?
Brown bears were native to Scotland as far back as the end of the last ice age, but they were in short supply because they preferred the climate of southern England.
Though bears were on the verge of extinction during the Iron Age, when the Romans arrived, they brought many bears with them, and it’s likely that some of these animals escaped – or were released – into the wilds of Scotland.
The currently accepted theory is that brown bear numbers increased briefly before disappearing around 1,500 years ago, sometime after the Romans left Britain.
Scientists analyzed bear remains from various locations and concluded that wild bears were alive and well until at least the turn of the fifth century, with a good chance they lived for much longer in Scotland’s most remote areas.
In fact, carvings of bears dating back to the 9th century have been discovered, suggesting that there may have been a few wild bears in Scotland up to 1,200 years ago.
The reason for their eventual extinction is the same as it is for every other animal that has been driven to extinction: man’s destruction of their habitat.
As towns replaced villages, there was an increasing demand for building materials, which meant that vast swaths of ancient forest were cut down and converted into lumber, leaving bears with fewer options for food.
Furthermore, as humans encroached on bear territory, they were hunted to protect farm animals, and by the medieval period, all wild bears in Britain had been completely eradicated.
Where can I find wild bears in Scotland?
Unfortunately, seeing wild bears in Scotland today is simply not possible.
That being said, there are a few places where you can see them in captivity, and some of these attractions (for example, the Highland Wildlife Park) have enclosures that do an excellent job of simulating what it would have been like to see these magnificent creatures in the wild.
I’ll list the best Scottish zoos and parks below, but keep in mind that most of them have breeding programs, so the animals move around, and bears may be present one year but move elsewhere the next.
Edinburgh Zoo RZSS. Because of its extensive conservation and breeding programs, this zoo is one of the largest and most well-known in the United Kingdom.
Two giant pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, as well as red pandas and Malayan sun bears, live at the zoo.
Although they have previously cared for brown bears, they do not currently have any, but wildlife enthusiasts will be pleased to know that they do have several rare Scottish wildcats.
Blair Drummond Safari Park is located in Blair Drummond, Ontario. The safari park does not currently house bears, but they have in the past and may do so again in the future.
The park’s current residents include owls and Shetland ponies, both of which are native to Scotland, as well as more exotic ostriches, macaques, giraffes, and zebras.
Highland Wildlife Park RZSS. The Highland Wildlife Park, Edinburgh Zoo’s sister site, aims to conserve wild animals from the world’s most remote regions.
This park, like Edinburgh Zoo, is home to the only female polar bear in the country, as well as three males.
The park also houses grey wolves and Scottish wildcats, as well as tigers, leopards, and a variety of other endangered species.
The Scottish Deer Centre is located in Scotland. This fantastic visitor attraction is primarily dedicated to the conservation of deer (the clue is in the name! ), but it also cares for Scottish wildcats and European brown bears of the type that once roamed Scotland.
Currently, this is one of the few places in Scotland where brown bears can be seen.
Will Bears Ever Be Reintroduced in Scotland?
‘We have no plans to reintroduce lynx, wolves, bears, or any other large carnivore species into Scotland,’ according to the gov.scot website.
That definitive statement has been the Scottish government’s official stance for several years now, despite frequent calls from campaigners to reintroduce ‘extinct’ animals back into the wild.
The truth is that animals cannot be released into the wild without a permit from the Scottish Natural Heritage agency, and no permit will be issued unless the government reverses its position, which is highly unlikely.
Bears would need to be closely controlled and managed if they were reintroduced to Scotland, as they are at the Wild Place Project in Bristol, England.
The project was created to bring four long-lost British animals (bears, lynx, wolves, and wolverines) back to our shores in a 7.5-acre woodland that visitors can explore via raised walkways that allow unobstructed viewing while keeping people safe and minimizing disturbance to the animals.
Expansion ideas include expanding the bear woodland to a larger area or even relocating the bears entirely to a fenced section of a national park.
In reality, this is the only way bears would be allowed back into Scotland because there are obvious issues with allowing large carnivores to roam free, primarily the threat of mauling livestock and humans.
Having said that, some countries, such as South Korea, have successfully released black bears into the wild, and the United States has a program in place to reintroduce grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park.
Meanwhile, campaigners argue that allowing brown and black bears to roam freely in Scotland would benefit the country’s tourism industry while also helping to keep red deer herds under control.
It remains to be seen whether any government will ever be brave enough to allow bears to be released into the wild.
Which wild animals can still be found in Scotland today?
Aside from the extremely rare haggis (small round animals with one leg longer than the other), Scotland is known for its wildlife as much as it is for its lochs and mountains.
Scotland’s land, seas, and skies are home to over 90,000 different species, including over 50,000 different types of insects.
It would be impossible to list them all, but here are a few wild animals that are as Scottish as Rabbie Burns, porridge, and bagpipes:
The red deer. Males can grow to be up to 9 feet long, 4 feet at the shoulder, and weigh up to 750 pounds, making them Britain’s largest land mammal.
They’re a common sight in Scotland, and can be seen throughout the Highlands and islands, as well as some areas of the Lowlands, but during my own travels, I’ve discovered that the Isles of Arran and Jura are the best places for deer-watching.
Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan are grouse that can only be found in the Scottish Highlands.
They’re small, dumpy birds with wingspans of about 2 feet, and they’re notoriously difficult to spot, both in summer when their plumage is mottled brown and grey, and in winter when their feathers turn pure white and blend in amazingly well against the snow (it snows for about 100 days a year in the Highlands).
Capercaillie. This is another type of grouse, but it is much larger and more territorial than the ptarmigan.
They prefer to live in the woods and are mostly grey with red-brown wings and a ring of red above the eyes (only in the males). You’ll notice them before you see them, especially during the breeding season, when males attempt to woo females with elaborate dances and loud guttural sounds.
Wildcat. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a wildcat in the wild, so I’m glad places like the Scottish Deer Centre exist where you can see these magnificent creatures up close.
Scottish wildcats resemble domestic cats in appearance, but they are much larger and have thicker coats. Unfortunately, the Scottish wildcat is on the verge of extinction as a result of human persecution and gene pool thinning caused by breeding with domestic cats.
The Red Squirrel. Red squirrels are universally adored. They’re impossibly cute and incredibly agile, but sadly, the introduction of larger and more aggressive American grey squirrels has decimated their populations.
While greys prefer to forage on the ground (which is why they were brought here), reds prefer to stay in the trees, so you’ll need a keen eye to spot them. I’ve written a Red Squirrel Guide that will teach you everything you need to know about this elusive creature.
Beaver. Yes, it’s difficult to believe, but beaver have been successfully reintroduced to parts of Scotland.
The Eurasian beaver is the world’s second-largest rodent, and it was common throughout the country until the 16th century, when it was hunted to extinction.
Fortunately, the Scottish Wildlife Trust has been reintroducing beavers into the wild since 2009, and from an initial trial of 21, they have now bred to well over 1,000 individuals.
Facts about brown bears
- Polar bears were once found in Scotland, but they are thought to have died out as the last ice age receded. Polar bear remains dating back at least 18,000 years have been discovered in caves in Sutherland.
- A landowner in Sutherland, Scotland, is hoping to get permission to release up to a dozen brown bears on his 23,000-acre Alladale Estate.
- Wojtek, a mascot of the Polish army during World War II, is one of Scotland’s most famous bears. Wojtek was cared for in Edinburgh Zoo in his final years, and he is now immortalized in a bronze statue in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.
- Brown bears can weigh up to 800 pounds, which is roughly the weight of four adult humans.
- Brown bears, despite their size, can run up to 30 mph for a short period of time.
- Mother bears in Scandinavia are caring for their cubs for up to a year longer than usual, which is thought to be due to a change in bear hunting regulations.
- Brown bears in the wild can spend up to 16 hours per day hunting for food.
- Brown bears can live in the wild for up to 30 years and in captivity for up to 45 years. However, many wild bears die before reaching the age of ten.
- The European brown bear is the continent’s largest predator.
- Brown bears are omnivores that eat a variety of foods including fish, berries, nuts, and plants, as well as large mammals such as deer.
Commonly Asked Questions
Are there bears in the United Kingdom?
Except in zoos and wildlife parks, there are no bears in the United Kingdom today. European brown bears can be found in Scotland at the Camperdown Wildlife Centre in Dundee.
Five Sisters Zoo Park is located in Polbeth, West Lothian.
Cupar, Fife: Scottish Deer Centre.
When did Scottish bears become extinct?
There are two schools of thought regarding the extinction of bears in Scotland. The first estimates that they vanished around 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, while the second (more widely held belief) is that they vanished around 500 AD during the early medieval period.
Are there wolves in Scotland?
Wolves do not exist in the wild in Scotland, nor in any other region of the United Kingdom. There are, however, a number of zoos and wildlife parks that care for wolf packs.
In the 1600s, wolves were hunted to extinction in Scotland, with the last specimens being killed in the far north in the counties of Sutherland and Moray.
Is there a polar bear in Scotland?
Although there are no wild polar bears in Scotland, they did live there during the last ice age.
The only polar bears in Scotland are found at the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park.
Final Thoughts and Further Reading
So now you know—Scotland has no wild bears, so there’s nothing to be afraid of. You won’t be killed, you won’t have to worry, and you won’t have to worry about a big brown bear stealing food off your plate when you’re eating outside of a pub.
Topic: Are There Bears in Scotland? The Story of Wild Bears in Scotland
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By: Travel Pixy