Conservationists are re-introducing European brown bears and gray wolves to a small sliver of the British countryside as part of a scheme called Bear Wood orchestrated by the Bristol Zoological Society.
This will be the first time in over millennia that the two animals have lived side-by-side in the country – European brown bears were driven to local extinction during Medieval times (or earlier), while gray wolves disappeared sometime around the 17th century.
The initiative can be thought of as a beta or limited example of rewilding, a concept that involves returning the natural landscape to the condition it was in pre-human intervention. This could include the planting of native vegetation, the removal of human-made constructs (like dams), and – of course – bringing back species that are locally extinct.
Previous examples in the UK include the re-introduction of the beaver, pine marten, and dormouse to areas of the country they have been expelled from. But more controversial is the debate on whether to re-introduce predators, like the bear and the wolf.
Earlier this year, researchers published a study identifying prime British real estate for the Eurasian lynx and in 2017, a pack of wolf cubs was brought to the UK with the intention of one day releasing the animals into the wild.
Elsewhere in the world, successful rewilding programs have seen the Siberian tiger return to South Korea, bison return to the Netherlands, and the scimitar-horned oryx return to Chad. In the US, various rewilding projects have seen the territory of the gray wolf expand after centuries of hunting drove the species to extinction in the contiguous American states
Bear Wood is restricted to an area of just 7.5 acres (equivalent to 30,350 square meters), so it is unlikely hikers will bump into a wild bear or roaming wolf any time soon. The exhibit is part of a wider initiative called the Wild Place Project, which aims to create a sustainable future through its conservation and education work.
According to the Wild Place Project website, Bear Wood will transport visitors to a time 10,000 years ago, "when the woodland was inhabited by European brown bears, European wolves, Eurasian lynx, and wolverine." Back then, the woodland they are attempting to recreate for Bear Wood covered the large swathes of the country. Today, it makes up just 2 percent.
The exhibit includes a viewing walkway, ranger station, classroom, interpretation space, and café – as well as the four bears, the five wolves, and lynx and wolverines.
Bear Wood is due to open on July 25.