After 300 years, wild boar come to the rescue of woodlands

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Eight sows, 40 young and a boar called Boris are to be introduced to the Highlands as a "ground disturbance force" more than 300 years after they were hunted to extinction in Scotland.

Once a common sight in the natural woodlands of Scotland, the wild boar are to be returned as part of a tree conservation scheme.

The boars have been farm-reared and are not aggressive to humans.

Two large enclosures have been set aside in Glen Affric near Inverness to allow animals to roam freely in an attempt to restore part of the ancient Caledonian pine forest.

A pilot project aims to achieve natural regeneration of the landscape as the boars reduce the dominance of choking bracken, churn up the soil and provide a fertile seed bed for pine, rowan and birch trees.

"The wetter climate of recent years in Scotland means bracken is spreading and there are bits of pine woodland which are being completely overtaken, which stops the pine forests regenerating under that kind of shade," said Liz Balharry, who is running the pilot project and wanted to find a non-chemical way of controlling the bracken.

"Wild boar are a natural component of European forests," she said. "Their unique rooting and scarifying behaviour breaks through ground vegetation to create seed beds for the regeneration of trees and other woodland plants."

Ms Balharry said that Scotland's woodland has been deprived of such a valuable natural resource for hundreds of years. "We hope they will gradually reduce the amount of bracken, which will allow the heather and grasses to grow back."

Native Caledonian pinewoods once covered thousands of square miles across the country but now can be found in just 84 sites in the north and west of Scotland, covering little more than 70 square miles.

Glen Affric, 35 miles from Inverness, covers more than 36,000 acres and contains one of the largest ancient Caledonian pinewoods in Scotland, making it a haven for wildlife, including golden eagles and osprey.

In recent years some 1,500 hectares of non-native trees have been removed to allow native species to flourish, and more than £1m has been spent on the regeneration of the forest.

If the use of wild boar as a natural "ground disturbance force" is successful the initial one-acre test areas will be expanded to about 10 acres. "It's an ideal solution," said Ms Balharry. "The boars are happy and they are helping the woodland. It's a long-term project and we will monitor how they do over the next three years."

Wild boars became extinct in Britain in 1683 as a result of hunting and cross-breeding with domestic herds. The animals being released in Glen Affric are related to southern European boars, which are prized for their ability to root out truffles, and although they are classed as " dangerous wild animals" they are relatively tame.

There are plans to reintroduce other extinct animals to Scotland, including, beavers, wolves, lynx, brown bears, and European bison, both as tourist attractions and, in the case of the predatory animals, a way of controlling the deer population.