If asked to conjure an image of natural landscapes in Britain, verdant, low-lying pastures might come to mind. But in centuries past, the region was covered with dense woodlands—forests that have been all but lost due to human activities. Now, a conservation group is hoping to bring one of Britain’s ancient woods back to life with a wildlife exhibit that will allow visitors to view four animals—European brown bears, grey wolves, Eurasian lynxes and wolverines—in the natural environment where they once roamed.
As Steven Morris reports for the Guardian, the initiative is being spearheaded by the Wild Place Project, a conservation park in Bristol operated by the Bristol Zoological Society. Bear Wood, as the exhibit is called, will stretch across a rare patch of ancient woodland that sits on the park’s property— “ancient woodland” being the term used to describe forests that have existed in England since at least 1600 A.D. Largely undisturbed by human development, these forests offer rich habitats for threatened species, among them greater-spotted woodpeckers, tawny owls and hedgehogs. But today, ancient woods make up just two percent of the United Kingdom’s land area. They are also devoid of some of their most important predators.
European brown bears have been extinct in Britain since at least the early Middle Ages—and possibly even earlier. British lynx disappeared around 700 A.D., due to hunting and habitat destruction. Wolf populations began to dwindle around 1000 A.D., eventually vanishing from the region. “The U.K. has lost … more large mammals—including wolves, lynx, bears, beavers, boars, moose, bison, and wolverines—than any other European country except Ireland,” Isabella Tree wrote for National Geographic in 2015.
Bear Wood seeks to introduce the public to this long-gone environment by bringing four predators back to their ancient habitat. The exhibit, which opens on July 25, spans seven-and-a-half acres of enclosed woodland—“that’s six football pitches,” Wild Place Project notes. Bear Wood features an elevated walkway, where visitors can safely meander as they watch bears and other species amble below, and a “bear viewing den,” where floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views of the creatures. There will be interactive play areas for children, and a team of rangers will help guide visitors through the area, pointing out the native species that live there.
Four European brown bears, five wolves, two Eurasian lynx and two wolverines will make their home at Bear Wood. For now, the predators are being kept in separate paddocks, but experts behind the project hope to eventually merge the bears and wolves into a single, 100,000 square-foot enclosure. These animals once shared a habitat but, as Morris tells the Guardian, have not co-existed in ancient British woodland for “more than 1,000 years.”
By bringing its bears and wolves together, the exhibit seeks to give visitors a more realistic sense of what Britain’s ancient forests would have looked like. But the predators’ comfort and safety will take precedence.
“[I]t is important not to rush the introduction of these two species,” Lucy McCormick, a press official with the Wild Place Project, tells Smithsonian in an e-mail. “Their new enclosure has been carefully designed to ensure the safety and peaceful co-existence of both species. They will each have their own indoor and outdoor paddocks, away from their large, shared outdoor paddock. This will mean they have a choice of either being in proximity or retreating to their own area.”
Bear Wood is not a fully wild habitat—its predators are being kept in cages and will be given food by the park’s staff—but the exhibit strives to spark discussions about important conservation topics. Chief among them is rewilding, which seeks to bring back wildlife species that have declined in their native environment. This method is controversial. Opponents fear that reintroduced predators like wolves and bears could pose a threat to livestock. Supporters maintain that restoring top predators to their native habitats can help restore the balance of the ecosystem by controlling prey populations that can be damaging if they grow out of control—like deer, for instance, which will devour trees and plants if their numbers are not kept in check. Experts say that even within the controlled environment of Bear Wood, the natural habitat will benefit from the re-introduction of important predators.
“Bears naturally clear undergrowth,” Morris explains, per Emma Snaith of the Independent. “And with more light coming through, this will create a new habitat and encourage new species to grow.”
Bear Wood may not settle the debate about rewilding, but experts hope that the attraction will at the very least make visitors realize that it is of critical importance to come up with strategies for protecting rare wildlife habitats and the species that live in them.
“Ancient woodland is one of the richest habitats for wildlife in the U.K., providing a home for hundreds of species of animals and plants,” says Christoph Schwitzer, chief zoological officer at the Society. “In order to protect what remains, we need to inspire the next generation about the importance of this unique habitat. We believe that the best way to do this is to immerse people in these woods and show them the amazing diversity that is at stake.”