Journey into the Pyrenean mountains in search of the region’s elusive brown bears in this beautifully written documentary account of our relationship with nature.

Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain: The battle to save the Pyrenean brown bear
Mick Webb


In the Pyrenees, contact between man and bear is rare. There are just over twenty brown bears roaming the vast mountain range. But for centuries, bears have loomed large in folklore and tradition, represented in cave paintings and both revered and feared in today’s annual festivals. ‘Bear Mountain’ is a journey into man’s relationship with bears and the hold these animals have on our imaginations.

However, bears are not viewed with universal affection. Efforts to replenish the brown bear population have been met with violent protests. Pyrenean farmers, fighting to sustain a traditional way of life long-since rendered uneconomical, view the bears as scapegoats for their troubles. Caught in midst of angry battles as change and modernity sweep through local communities, the bears are decried, victimised and hunted.

Set amidst the Pyrenean peaks, ‘Bear Mountain’ is a beautifully written documentary account of the author’s search for an elusive brown bear named Balou. From tracking bears with the Bear Team, witnessing the madcap fetes in the bears’ honour and exploring the history of man and bear, ‘Bear Mountain’ scours the emotional response that bears inspire and takes us close to the heart of our connection to the natural world.


About the Author

Mick Webb

Following a career as a BBC factual programme producer and editor of the BBC’s Languages website, Mick has worked as freelance travel writer. Two of his major interests – France and environmental issues – are combined in this book.


This extract is taken from Chapter 1 of Bear Mountain

Bears have always provoked strong feelings. Of all the large predators whose survival is uncertain or threatened, they are the ones who most resemble humans. Bears can stand upright on two legs, their diet is quite similar to ours, and like us they leave tracks with the imprint of a whole foot. It’s probably no accident that of all our cuddly, childhood toys, it’s the moth-eaten teddy bear that many of us cling on to well into adulthood when all the rest have been discarded. Many people, however uninterested they may be in ecological matters, still feel a residual attachment to the bear. They represent something of a wilder, freer way of life. The Basque people, whose ancient land at the eastern end of the Pyrenees stretches across French and Spanish territory, used to believe that humans descended from bears.

The connection with bears was felt in a more extreme way by our cave-dwelling ancestors. Although etymologists would reasonably disagree, it is tempting to think of the word ‘forebears’ as a clue to the closeness of the relationship. In 1923, the renowned Pyrenean speleologist Norbert Casteret discovered a cave near the village of Montespan. It contained plentiful evidence of the presence, 25,000 years ago, of cave bears and their successors, brown bears. There was also a 14,000-year-old clay representation of a brown bear, without a head, but pricked all over with the imprint of what might have been spears. This discovery has given rise to theories about a prehistoric bear cult, perhaps connected with rituals designed to bring luck to hunters.

The Montespan discovery is not an isolated case. Throughout the Pyrenees, legends and myths about bears abound. They are connected with fertility, death, rebirth and sexuality; many of them involve bears and women having sex, either consensually or not. The most widespread one is the tale of Jean de l’Ours. It exists in various versions and has been handed down from generation to generation. Jean was the son of a bear and a woman, and he was exceptionally strong, as well as extremely ugly. After helping his mother escape from the cave where he was born, Jean wandered around the world and met three strong men, called Mill-wheel, Oak-cutter and Mountain-carrier. The four of them had several adventures before coming across a villainous old man (the devil, in fact), who had imprisoned three beautiful princesses and concealed three treasure chests in his castle. Jean managed to free the princesses and – despite the dirty tricks played by his companions to get the gold and the girls for themselves – he ended up marrying the prettiest princess and living happily ever after. A superficial analysis suggests that the ‘bear’ comes out of this story rather well – not just portrayed as being close to humankind, but in some ways morally superior too.

However, most bear myths don’t end so happily. Take, for example, the festivals marking the end of winter in the Catalan region of the Pyrenees. If you were to wander, unprepared, into Prats-de-Mollo on the morning of the Fête de L’Ours (Feast of the Bear), you would be in for a bit of a shock. A group of terrifying creatures, dressed in bear skins, with faces and hands blackened with soot and oil, and carrying stout sticks, are rushing through the narrow streets, in turn terrifying and entertaining the cheering crowd. Then the ‘hunters’ join in. They are wielding wine gourds and shotguns loaded with blanks, and begin a hectic and noisy pursuit of the bears. And suddenly comes the weirdest intervention of all: the ‘barbers’, dressed in white, wearing lace bonnets and powdered with flour, begin to catch, shackle and symbolically shave the bears with an axe, humanising them. The day ends in a frenzied dance (Bal de Corre), with all the participants taking part, until a gunshot rings out and the bears fall down dead. There’s plenty for anthropologists to get their teeth into here, but as far as the bears are concerned it adds up to mythological bad news.

The historical relationship with bears in the Pyrenees is that of reverence mixed with fear. In the mid-19th century the Vallée d’Ossau, in the western part of the High Pyrenees, was the home of a huge bear known as Dominique. In the 1840s, Dominique was killed by a renowned bear hunter, Jean Loustau, and his body – with a tricorn hat placed on his head as befits a soldier – was brought by cart into the city of Pau where he received a funeral and an obituary notice:


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