Friday, 30 November 2012

Bears and seeds

When I suggest to people that perhaps brown bears could return to Scotland, I often get a response along the lines of 'maybe, once the forests are restored...' But I think this might be putting the cart before the horse. As well as keeping herbivores on their toes, bears have an even bigger role to play in natural woodland regeneration.

One of the most interesting things I found out while researching my novel Bear Witness is the role bears play in spreading seeds, particularly big woodland seeds like acorns and hazel nuts. When I met Andras Zedrosser and Jon Swenson from the International Bear Association in Norway I asked them what European brown bears' main ecological role is, and their response was 'tree seed dispersal'.

If there are nuts and berries available bears will scoff large quantities and some of them will get right through the bears' digestive tracts and emerge with a good quantity of fertiliser. Anyone who has seen autumn bear scat knows it is berry-laden. Bears have big ranges too, so by the time the seeds are sown, they can be quite a long way from where they were eaten.

So, if we want help spreading our native woodlands, bears could be very helpful. They don't need to live in woods all the time; there are plenty of bears in tundra areas in northern Europe and Russia, for example, so they would probably survive in some of our more open lands and would probably help these lands to regain some tree cover.

I've seen people marvel at the graphs that show how rapidly oak and hazel moved north and recolonised Britain after the end of the last ice age. One of the reasons for this is bound to be that bears were helping the spread of the seeds.

Bears would also help to spread berry trees, like rowans, although right now the huge and wonderful flocks of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings, who have summered in bear-rich habitats, are doing a great job. Everything with yummy seeds (hawthorns and blackthorns, crab apples, wild cherries, hollies, brambles, roses, raspberries, strawberries) would stand a better chance of being dispersed if bears were back in our ecosystems. Many of these species aren't planted at all in the tree plantations that are installed under the guise of 'new native woodlands'.

So I say, if we want more forests so that we can have bears in them, why not get some bears to help? That way we'll be more likely to end up with the kind of woodlands they might like!

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