Wednesday 25 April 2012

Bears in Norway

For the past two years I've been saving from my somewhat meagre income as a writer to go to Norway to research my next book. It's a novel, set in the future, about the reintroduction of brown bears to Scotland. It's speculative fiction, OK!

Having written The Last Bear, about their extinction in Scotland, writing the story of bringing them back has become a necessity. I can't bring myself to set it a thousand years in the future - surely it won't take that long – so I've set it, optimistically, in my lifetime.

So, where does Norway come in? The protagonist of the story starts out in Norway, and there she learns a lot about how to try to re-establish a precariously small, persecuted population of bears. Norway is similar in size to Scotland, with a similar number of people. It's more rural and it has twice as much forest and gets much more snow in winter, but there are lots of landscape similarities - a long coastline, lots of islands, not much good arable land and plenty of mountains. Brown bears were extinct there until fairly recently too. So I was interested to find out how the Norwegian rural people are managing to live with bears again.

Norway has a major advantage over Scotland - it is part of the continent, and shares a long border with Sweden, and short ones with Finland and Russia, over which bears can wander. As a National Park manager pointed out, bears don't recognise national boundaries!

In Sweden, the bear population was also decimated in the 19th century but in the 20th century made a big recovery. After the second world war, Sweden industrialised rapidly with a big shift of people away from rural areas to urban areas. This meant that the pressure on bears reduced dramatically, and they thrived accordingly. The population has doubled in the past twenty years. This expansion is the primary reason why bear numbers appear to be increasing in Norway. There are simply more Swedish-born bears wandering across the border.

Counting how many bears there are 'in Norway' is therefore a difficult process, as most of the bears found on the western side of the border probably spend most of their time in Sweden, which is home to around 3000 bears. There is intensive monitoring of bears in Norway, with DNA testing of hair and scat. Last year, just over a hundred bears were known to have visited. Many of these will be males, which roam widely, but a few females are slowly making their way into the country, with an estimated six females denning and producing litters.

With so few bears on the ground, we knew that spotting bears was going to be highly unlikely, especially in April. There was still a metre of snow on the ground, and although the sun was warm when it shone, and lakes were starting to thaw, nights could be bitterly cold. It was -12 degrees one morning when we got up out of our tent, and it had been colder than that in the night.

So we were over the moon, when walking in the Lierne forest, to spot bear scratchings on trees, and even more delighted to find two sets of footprints. One set were of a big animal, which walked down to a stream, and rolled in the snow nearby. The other set were an even bigger thrill - a set of big adult bear prints, with smaller prints interspersed with them. We could picture the mother keeping her cub nearby, and the cub trotting along following its mother's footsteps. We were told that last year's monitoring had shown 37 distinct bears had visited Lierne. We had seen evidence of the 38th bear!

There are some Norwegians who want to hunt bears, and a hunting quota is set annually by the government. And this quota is a serious work of fiction! The quota last bear was 26 bears, but the actual number of bears shot was just two. Why? Partly because they are extremely shy and difficult to hunt but mostly because there are simply so few of them. For a quota of 26 kills to be set for a resident population of less than 10 breeding females, and a total transient population of only about 100, is indicative of the history of persecution, the lasting paranoia about these animals, and the way quota-setting is based on politics rather than science.

I wonder how the 38th bear in Lierne will fare?