Are there bears? Animals and hiking in Switzerland
Firstly: in our experience, there’s very little wildlife-based danger to hikers in Switzerland. We’ve occasionally been intimidated by overzealous sheepdogs or curious cows and it’s worth keeping an eye out for ticks, but mostly the animals will let you hike in peace and you are highly unlikely to have any serious problems with the wildlife. You’re more likely to want to take a picture with some of the cuter animals you come across!
The most dangerous animal in Switzerland is probably actually the tick – not because the ticks themselves are dangerous, but because of the two diseases they can carry – Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis. If you are bitten by an infected tick, the chances of being infected with either disease is apparently not high, but the diseases are unpleasant and can be serious, so it’s worth at least being aware of the potential problems with tick bites. Tick-borne diseases seem to mainly be a problem at low altitude, below about 1500 m (5000 feet), so if you’re hiking in the high Alps you’re pretty much fine. If you’re living in Switzerland and plan on spending time outdoors, it’s probably worth getting the tick-borne encephalitis vaccine – it’s apparently even included in your basic health insurance. Wearing long trousers is probably one of the easiest ways to keep safe but we know that when it’s 30 degrees in the summer the thought of long trousers isn’t appealing. So the choice is yours and give yourself a good tick check if you’ve been hiking in the Jura, which is where we’ve most often seen ticks!
Links to information about ticks in Switzerland: basic info here, and a tick distribution map here.
Apart from the tick, there are a couple of larger animals in Switzerland that could be dangerous but are uncommon enough that we’ve still never come across them. There are apparently small populations of lynx and wolves which mainly seem to cause problems for farmers by occasionally killing farm animals. As a hiker, you’re more likely to see sheepdogs guarding livestock herds, and while having sheepdogs clearly makes sense, this can actually be a problem for hikers. The sheepdogs tend to be large and aggressive, and will come running at you if you get too close to the herd they’re with – even if you’re following a path. We’ve actually turned around before to take an alternative path because two angry sheepdogs wouldn’t let us through – better than risking getting bitten!
You’ll find a map showing where you’ll find sheepdogs in the Alps here.
Speaking of farm animals, some people also find cows uncomfortable to be around, and cows are (famously) widespread in Switzerland. They can sometimes be aggressive so are worth treating with respect, but we’ve mostly found them to be indifferent or at worst curious, occasionally following us or trying to lick us (!). Also, it’s best to stay away from young calves – their mothers may get aggressive if you walk too nearby, or in between the mother and her calf.
Going back to wild animals, you’ll also find various large herbivores, such as ibex, chamois and deer. None of these are likely to let you get close to them even if you want to, but the sight of ibex clambering around on vertiginous cliffs can be impressive – something to watch out for in the high Alps in the summer!
On the smaller end of the spectrum, marmots are another harmless but popular Alpine creature, and they’re a common sight in the Alps in the summer. They have quite a distinctive shriek that they let out to fellow marmots as a warning if predators (including humans) are coming, so you may well hear them before you see them. We’ve often seen them running around the slopes of the mountain whilst in cable cars. They aren’t always easy to spot though – it’s a bit like Where’s Wally?
This summary is mostly written based on personal experience, but we also did some research when writing this page to see if we’d forgotten anything important. As with most countries, the list of potentially problematic creatures living in Switzerland might look scary at first sight, with lots of bitey animals down at the smaller end of the size scale: various wasps, bees, mosquitos, mildly venomous snakes, spiders, caterpillars and so on. There are even apparently a couple of small scorpion species, who knew! But in general, these little critters are found in many other countries as well and with some common sense, most of them won’t cause you any problems, even if you do meet them. If it helps, one of us laidbackhikers is not particularly critter, animal or bug friendly – so we wouldn’t be comfortable hiking as much as we do if we perceived any serious danger from the wildlife!
Finally, let’s deal with those bears that we mentioned. Brown bears were originally native in Switzerland, but went locally extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. It stayed that way until the early 21st century, when bears started wandering back into Switzerland from a reintroduced population over the border in Italy. Since 2005, there have been a few sporadic bear sightings, mostly in the east in Graubünden but also further afield such as in canton Bern. As far as we can tell, there are hardly any bears in Switzerland at any one time – perhaps a couple – and no-one has been attacked or killed by the bears. So it seems to be very unlikely that you’ll see any bears in Switzerland outside of captivity!
So there you have it – a rough guide to some of the main animal inhabitants of Switzerland. In summary: as we said at the top, there are a couple of things to keep an eye out for, but there’s not much wildlife-based danger for hikers in Switzerland, especially compared to some other countries around the world. Happy hiking folks!