Friend or foe? Wild boar back after 400 years away

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The Independent Online

Some people think they are big bad beasts, crop destroyers, potential carriers of disease, and a definite danger to humans. Not at all, say others, they're charismatic, legendary animals whose unexpected return to Britain is welcomed.

Some people think they are big bad beasts, crop destroyers, potential carriers of disease, and a definite danger to humans. Not at all, say others, they're charismatic, legendary animals whose unexpected return to Britain is welcomed.

But either way, wild boars - those things with the razor-sharp tusks (on some) - are fully re-established in the English countryside. The Government is now trying to decide what to do about them after an absence of some 400 years.

In modern times Britain has never needed a wild boar policy, as the animals were hunted to extinction by the early 1600s. (Most, if not all, of the English records of boar may be of animals brought over from the continent by noblemen for hunting).

But after a series of escapes from boar farms, starting in the 1980s, the numbers of the animals living wild and breeding successfully in the Kent/Sussex border, Dorset and Herefordshire have now reached a point where the need for an official policy has become apparent. A review of the issue has been commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The question is at heart a simple one. Is the wild boar in England, a sometimes highly-aggressive wild pig up to five feet long and weighing up to 400lbs, a friend or a foe? Is it an invasive pest species, or a welcome reintroduction? At the moment the jury is out, and the review is seeking opinions.

But it is a matter of concern because, with a high reproductive rate and no natural enemies, some people expect that wild boars may well rapidly increase in number.

Charles Wilson, a senior wildlife management official of Defra's Rural Development Service, based in Exeter, is heading the review and consulting a wide range of interested parties ranging from the National Farmers' Union and the Forestry Commission to the county Wildlife Trusts. His report, due later this spring, will with another dossier of scientific evidence, be the basis of policy advice to ministers.

This could range from a managed tolerance of the animals, through a new hunting regime - at present, wild boar are not specifically covered by the law in Britain - all the way to their complete elimination. Although Mr Wilson stresses that no decisions have yet been taken.

The main potential problems, he says, are threefold - agricultural damage, the transmission of disease and the threat to public safety.

The way boars root in the ground with their snouts can cause enormous damage to farmers' cereal crops. "In Europe, they are the single biggest agricultural pests," he says. Unlikely as it may sound, it is also thought that wild boars will kill and eat young lambs.

The possibility of their being carriers of livestock disease, specifically foot-and-mouth disease and, or, classical swine fever, is taken even more seriously, as once such infection got established in the boar herd, it could be spread by their extensive nightly foraging of up to twenty miles at a time. Wild boars in England have been known to break into domestic pig units seeking to mate with sows on heat.

The third issue, and the one most likely to make headlines, is the question of public safety. Although wild boars almost always flee when confronted with humans, on rare occasions, such as that of a sow defending her piglets, they will attack, and then they are dangerous. An older male, in particular, possesses the tusks that begin to appear at two years old, and these can grow to six inches long and are as sharp as knives.

An earlier study of the risks associated with wild boars, published by the Government in 1998, included several stories of the animals trying to attack people. Many of the areas where boar are breeding now are woodlands with public footpaths through them, and the issue is a sensitive one within Defra. In Cinderford, Gloucestershire, earlier this month, a boar thought to have escaped from an abattoir charged through a supermarket and knocked down an old woman before fleeing into the countryside.

Yet some people think it's not all problems, and free-living wild boars in Britain have their advocates. Some farmers in southern England are already allowing organised boar hunting on their land, but perhaps the most notable enthusiast is Martin Goudling, a former Defra zoologist who has not only intensively studied wild boar in Britain and written a book about them, but set up a website devoted to them. (www.britishwildboar.org.uk).

On the website Dr Goulding, now an independent consultant, has created an opinion poll, where after reading the arguments for and against keeping wild boar in the British countryside, you can have your say about their return. At the weekend, the number of people so far voting yes to the question, "Is the return of the wild boar to Britain a good thing?" was listed as 1066; those voting no as 65.

Dr Goulding said that, although he himself was neutral, there were good arguments in favour of wild boar coming back. "They are nature's natural plough, and their rooting in woodlands increases biodiversity, through making room for more annual plants" he said. "They are also a resource for hunting and food, and we are replacing a once-British animal that was lost through man's actions."

Most of all, he said it wanted them to be fairly judged, and for there to be no knee-jerk reactions. Not everyone is so sanguine, however. Dr Stephen Tapper, director of policy and communications at the charity The Game Conservancy, said that wild boar numbers in Germany and France were growing exponentially and were now out of control, even though hundreds of thousands of animals were shot every year. "Are wild boars in Britain a disaster waiting to happen? That's the question that needs answering," he said.

"Wild Boar in Britain," by Martin Goulding, is available from Whittet Books, Ltd, Hill Farm, Stonham Road, Cotton, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 4RQ, price £14.95

RETURN OF A LEGEND

In European culture the wild boar has always been more than just a free-ranging hairy version of the domestic pig.

It has been seen as a prestigious and noble animal, the prize hunting quarry for everyone from kings down, because of the danger its ferocity presented to the hunter. It came to represent strength, bravery, battle and conquest.

In early Celtic mythology the goddess of the forest and hunting, Ardwinna, above, was often depicted riding on the back of a boar and Celtic war trumpets were sometimes of wild boar shape.

Later, wild boars figured frequently on coats of arms and as prestige symbols. A running wild boar was the badge of the Romans' 20th Legion, above, which took part in the invasion of Britain in AD43 and was later stationed in Chester; and a boar was also the personal badge of Richard of Gloucester, above, the Yorkist prince who achieved historical infamy as Richard III, alleged murderer of the Princes in the Tower.

Many mythologies and legends have tales of encounters between heroes and wild boars.

Wild boars are definitely breeding in the wild in two areas in southern England: the Kent/Sussex border, and west Dorset and are almost certainly also breeding in Herefordshire.

All have their origins in the wild boar farms which began to be set up in Britain in the 1980s after travellers to continental Europe acquired a taste for the distinctive gamey flavour of wild boar meat and wild boar pâté ( pâté de sanglier).

There is no definitive list of boar farms in Britain but there are thought to be about 40.

The Kent/Sussex group, found in the dense woodlands between Ashford and the coast, is the original and largest and may now number 200 or more. It is thought to stem from an escape of several boars from a farm in Tenterden, Kent, after the hurricane of October 1987 blew down fences which were keeping them in.

The Dorset group, which may number about 30 animals, is found in the woodlands between Powerstock and Toller Porcorum, from where a group of boars escaped from a farm in 1996. The third group in Herefordshire, may be of a similar size to the Dorset one, and stems from an escape in the late 1990s and is found in woodlands south of Ross-on-Wye, near the northern edge of the Forest of Dean.

These are the Government's scientifically estimated figures. But some local farmers put the numbers much higher, and accounts of animals seen away from these three groups are increasing.

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