Country Matters: Going to war with the boar

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When my brother was on Voluntary Service Overseas in India, he once wrote home to say that somebody had shot a wild boar 10ft long. "Nonsense!" was my father's crisp retort. "Bores that size are found only in my club."

He may soon have to withdraw his claim for that exclusive nature reserve, the Garrick, because wild boar of considerable dimensions are at large in Kent, Sussex and parts of Dorset, and the fact that they have become established in the English countryside is no joke for local farmers. One male animal killed in Dorset was so heavy that four men could not heave it out of the ditch into which it had fallen, and needed a tractor to shift it.

The founder members of the feral herd seem to have escaped from enclosures after the hurricane of 1990, when falling trees smashed down fences. Early reports of wild boar on the loose were dismissed as hallucinations; now they are two a penny, and at least 40 animals have been shot, and several killed on roads. The strange fact is that nobody has ever owned up to losing any; but, as one farmer put it: "They didn't come from Mars."

The population is now estimated at between 100 and 300. Last October, in an official report from its Central Science Laboratory, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) belatedly acknowledged that a problem exists; and in January the privately-funded Game Conservancy Trust recommended that the pigs should be eradicated before they spread any farther. One of the earliest landowners to suffer from their depredations was Jenny Farrant, who farms near Rye, in East Sussex. The first intimation of trouble came when she found all her sheep fencing "torn asunder" and began to lose lambs.

"Wild boar are omnivorous," she says. "People claim they don't eat lambs - but they do. All you find is a pool of blood and four little feet."

The pigs also did such damage digging up hops that she had to take out one whole garden. Since then, six wild boar have been shot on her land, and several have been hit on the roads near her farm. Recently, however, the animals seem to have moved away, probably in search of food. The autumn of 1997 produced a tremendous crop of acorns but last year there were hardly any, and the pigs have started digging up fields of young wheat.

In Britain, wild boar are officially classed as dangerous wild animals; they are mainly nocturnal and self-effacing, but big males stand nearly 3ft high at the shoulder, may easily weigh 300lb, and if attacked or cornered can disembowel opponents with one sweep of their tusks.

In calling for their eradication, the Game Conservancy Trust points out that although the animals were once native to the British Isles, their natural predators - wolves and bears - have long since disappeared, and only man can now control their numbers. Since poison is too dangerous and trapping is ineffective, the only weapon for the job is a powerful rifle.

Already the presence of a new kind of big game has brought out cowboys by the dozen. If a farmer is known to have problems, would-be pig-hunters turn up offering their services, armed with all sorts of unsuitable weapons, including crossbows and bows and arrows. In fact boar are so heavily armoured with hair, hide and layers of lard and muscle that it takes a big-bore rifle to kill them cleanly.

At present, a small army of stalkers, both amateur and professional, is barely keeping the deer population under control. If wild boar were to become widely established, the police would have to issue many more licences for heavy-calibre weapons - a direct reversal of their present policy of trying to restrict the use of firearms.

On the Continent, boar-shooting is highly prized - and often highly dangerous. In Poland, I once got an unsolicited demonstration of what the military call "crack and thump". The supersonic crack of a bullet passing close by my head was instantaneously followed by the thump of its impact in a bank behind me.

In many European countries, the revenue raised from hunters helps pay for the damage pigs cause to farm crops. In Germany alone, some 300,000 boar are shot every year, in drives and from high seats set on the edges of fields and forests. The sport and the meat are in strong demand, and the payment per animal amounts to nearly pounds 170.

Here, we have no system or tradition of that kind. Our forests are far smaller, and our environment has evolved to its present state without the influence of wild pigs. If they came back in large numbers, the chances are that they would cause havoc, not only on farms but also in woods, and especially on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Plants such as bluebells would be rooted up, the nests of ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and partridges gobbled.

Another worry is that wild boar would spread infections such as swine fever and foot and mouth disease. Already there have been many instances of feral animals breaking into farm enclosures and mating with domestic sows. If swine fever, for instance, became established in the wild, it would continually re-infect domestic stock.

A more immediate danger is to people walking their dogs in the woods. Sows with litters can be extremely aggressive in defence of their young - and, as one farmer's wife put it: "If a dog got involved in a fight, an English person would go in to try to rescue it. The outcome would be exactly like someone going out on to ice: the person dies and the dog is saved."

The general view, then, is that wild boar are a menace, rather than a desirable addition to our fauna, being too large and destructive for our tight-knit island. Yet even if an official decision is taken to exterminate them, the practical difficulties will be enormous. It is more than 50 years since captive animals made similar escapes in Sweden, and their descendants are still very much on the rampage.