Trees for Spain’s bears: Cherries and plums for a peaceful coexistence

Fapas employee Monchu Magadan prepares fruit trees for planting with volunteers (Plantaciones Gourmet campaign). The aim is to keep bears away from settlements in the province of León and avoid conflicts with the local population.
© Fapas

Broken branches, plundered cherry trees, a pile of droppings in the meadow - it's impossible to overlook: a powerful animal has been at work here. "This bear has to go!" hisses the owner of the property in Villarino del Sil, a village in the northern Spanish province of León. It won't be easy to placate him. But that is precisely what we need to do now, say Doriana Pando and Roberto Hartasánchez from the EuroNatur partner organisation Fapas. "The people in the villages are unsettled because bears have only recently returned to the area and the government has been stirring up public opinion against the animals. We want to do something positive to counteract this." The two are determined to sort this out. With our 'Fruit trees for gourmets' project, the idea is to defuse the situation as quickly as possible and improve it in the long term.”

At a safe distance from the village

Doriana and Roberto want to show how humans and bears can coexist peacefully. The campaign aims to create new food sources for the bears and at the same time enable Fapas to build up a rapport with the people in the villages. "We want to work with as many landowners as possible. The fruit trees are to be distributed across hundreds of largely uncultivated small plots located at a safe distance from the villages," explains Roberto. "It's important to us that every tree survives! We are providing cherry, plum and apple trees from the Fapas nursery that are sufficiently large and hardy. By planting the trees only at the edges of the plots and installing metal grills to  protect them from being damaged by animals, the areas can also be used as grazing land for livestock. In addition, the landowners receive a bonus of 10 euros per tree from us and can harvest the fruit. In this way, we want people to stop seeing bears as a problem and instead associate them with something positive."

It is not surprising that the bears approach human settlements. Especially in years of drought, when the oaks produce no acorns, they cannot find enough food in the forests south of the Cantabrian Mountains. Fruit trees in gardens then attract them like magnets. The bears also less likely to be scared away as rural depopulation means that most villages in the province of León are home to very few people these days. Normally, the bears are peaceful, but they do cause damage and incur the wrath of the remaining villagers.

Doriana and Roberto are very worried about a smear campaign that was launched last year against the female bear "Lechuguina". The female bear has already given birth to several cubs and plays a particularly important role in maintaining the bear population. Nevertheless, the government of the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León is now considering having the animal captured and locked up in an enclosure. "Spending the rest of her life in captivity would be torture for Lechuguina and a major setback for bear conservation," says Roberto Hartasánchez. The key to this campaign is influencing how bears are dealt with in the province of León in the future.


  • Our strong Spanish partners

    Thanks to Fapas and the support of EuroNatur, it has been possible to save brown bears from extinction in their most westerly distribution area in Europe. Today, there are once again more than 300 bears in the west of the Cantabrian Mountains. Equally important is that people in the areas where Fapas are operating are now proud of the presence of these animals. The first bears have already spread southwards into the province of León and towards the Portuguese border. As a result, Fapas has been setting up a second base there for around a year. 

"We are thrilled"

Tree planting from 2010, sponsored by EuroNatur, “Fruit for the Bears” campaign, Finca El Hachal, Some of the chestnut trees already have an impressive trunk circumference of up to one meter. The cherry trees are growing more slowly, but they too are already bearing plenty of fruit. The planting has further improved the ecological value of the area and provides plenty of food for bears and many other animals - cherries in the spring and chestnuts in the fall. Fapas employee Monchu Magadan measures the trunk circumference of a chestnut tree.
© Fapas

The first cherry trees were planted at the beginning of spring. Many more followed in subsequent weeks. "The mayor of Villarino del Sil was very open to our campaign and the media also reported favourably on it. It looks like we are well on the way to creating a model project with the 'fruit trees for gourmets'," says Doriana Pando. If things go well, the approach could soon become standard in the bears' southern range. It has already proved successful in a similar form in the west of the Cantabrian Mountains. In April, rangers from Fapas checked one of the first areas in the Trubia Valley where they had planted chestnut and cherry trees almost 15 years before with the support of EuroNatur. The campaign was called "Fruit for the Bears" at the time and was similar to "Fruit Trees for Gourmets". "We are delighted," reports Roberto Hartasánchez, “after all these years, a wonderful forest of chestnut and cherry trees has grown up here. The trunks of some of the chestnut trees already have impressive circumferences of up to one metre. The cherry trees grow more slowly, but they too are already bearing plenty of fruit. The planting has further improved the ecological value of the area and provides plenty of food for bears and many other animals - cherries in spring and chestnuts in autumn.”

Katharina Grund

Bear scats over the course of the year

Bears are omnivores and their diet varies greatly depending on the season and region. Their scats are usually large and the contents easy to recognise. Brown bears are creatures of habit and prefer to use existing paths, making it easy to track down their scats. Colour, texture and smell all reveal what the brown bear has eaten. Here are a few helpful guidelines:


  • Spring/Summer

    • Meat scats: Light-coloured faeces, clearly shaped, strong odour, may contain hair and bone parts. At the end of winter, the bears have little food available so satisfy their needs mainly with carrion (e.g. from deer that have not survived the winter). 
    • Ant egg scats: Dry, blackish, ants still recognisable. Ant eggs are a welcome source of protein. 
    • Cherry scats: Dark, reddish, noticeably many cherry pips
  • Autumn

    In autumn, bears prepare for the winter and put on a thick layer of fat. Their daily calorie requirement is roughly equivalent to 30 kilograms of apples. Fatty and sugary fruits are therefore particularly popular.

    • Plum scats: Dark-coloured fruit puree, fragrant 
    • Apple scats: Light-coloured and relatively soft, apple peel and cores clearly visible
    • Rosehip scats: pink to pinkish-orange 
  • Winter

    Most bears spend the winter months in hibernation, losing around a third of their body weight. To save energy, they lower their body temperature, respiratory and heart rates - but only down to a level at which they can still wake and defend their shelter if necessary. However, being disturbed during hibernation can be life-threatening, especially for mothers with cubs. Some individuals remain active throughout the winter. 

Valuable legacy

Bear scats provide scientists with data without having to get close to the animals. For example, they can use faecal samples to determine sex and health status. The cortisol level can even provide information about the animal's stress level. Bear faeces can also help to spread plant seeds. A particularly practical feature of that is the fertiliser supplied with the droppings.