Bear Mountain by Mick Webb: a review

Bear Mountain by Mick Webb

Bear Mountain by Mick Webb

Bears are a contentious subject in the Pyrenean Mountains and Mick Webb’s short book Bear Mountain explains why.

Despite sometimes violent protests, bears been reintroduced to the Pyrenees in 1996-7, 2006 and 2016 saving a relict population from extinction. There are lessons here for Britain where rewilding exponent George Monbiot (Feral ) gives their acceptability a low 3/10.

Bear Mountain covers all the issues, the story following Mick Webb’s researches, travelling in the French Pyrenees. It is an easy, enjoyable read for such a complex subject. Although he fails in his quixotic search to see the animal he does meet some of the main human protagonists in the conflict. Ultimately he comes down on the side of continuing reintroductions but he gives the opponents a fair chance to explain their problems in adapting livestock raising to cope with the new situation and their consequent rejection.

The only aspect which would now deserve a more extensive treatment is the influence of Christianity (and other religions) on the way bears have been viewed. The Ariège Departmental Archives have recently brought out L’Homme et l’Animal Sauvage. This book includes a section on senefiance: religions have frequently supposed that animals have moral significance for the instruction of humanity (foxes are cunning, owls wise). Bears signified masculinity XXX, evidently not to the taste of the Catholic Church.


L'Homme et l'animal sauvage published by the Ariège Departmental Archives

L’Homme et l’animal sauvage published by the Ariège Departmental Archives


“One scientific question still to be answered”, writes Webb, “is how many bears are actually needed in the Pyrenees to maintain a viable population. As many as 150, maybe, although lower estimates are around 50.” Perhaps here he has been misled by the local pro-bear lobby which doesn’t wish to fuel the opposition. However, in Spanish Cantabria, following a successful campaign, the numbers have risen to 240 but the Fundación Oso Pardo still thinks that “The main conservation problem is the shortage of numbers… the two sub-populations are very small.” Source: Fundación Oso Pardo.

The most interesting things I learned from the book:

  • Bears are not addicted to honey; what they really want is bees’ protein-rich larvae.
  • Bears only like to eat a lamb’s lungs and heart, never the entrails or the parts (like legs) that humans favour
  • Arcangeli (ADET, pro-bear) claims that paradoxically overall “there’s actually been an 80% decrease in losses.” Since the reintroductions, more shepherds stay permanently with their flocks and losses from disease, attacks by stray dogs etc. are reduced.

If this claim is not exaggerated it makes a hole in one of the anti-bear arguments. (Day-to-day losses like this don’t make the headlines like bear attacks.) It doesn’t, however, much change the balance in the Couserans where most of the bear-related deaths occur.

Mick Webb also points out that the return of the ‘traditional’ bear has encouraged a return to traditional stock management methods which were being steadily eroded.

At $2.99 Bear Mountain is should be required reading for anybody interested in European rewilding.

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