Wild thing: boar menace Gloucestershire

Wild boar are on the rampage in Gloucestershire, so the council has sent a team to Germany to see how they cope with the menace
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The Independent Online

The first evidence that wild boar had become a problem in Soudley came one weekend morning last month, when the manager of the football team in the Gloucestershire village on the edge of the Forest of Dean got a phone call warning him that the recently restored pitch had been extensively vandalised.

That day's clash with Northern Senior Division Two rivals Charfield was abruptly cancelled after it became clear that the damage to the previously pristine playing field, which had left deep gouges the length and breadth of the surface, would take several months to repair.

Far from being committed by drunken yobs in a tractor, the act of wanton hooliganism was carried out by a "sounder" (the collective term) of wild boar, with their sharp tusks. The rampaging porcine mob had squeezed through fence gaps from surrounding woodland to churn up the turf, newly laid at a cost of £1,000, in search of tasty roots and grubs.

"This is the first time we've heard of anything like this," said Chris Lucker, operations manager for the Football Association in Gloucestershire. "Usually, it's motorbikes or a car that tear up pitches, not boars."

The incident was just the latest in a series of boar run-ins, including attacks on passing horse riders, an alleged savaging of three dogs, and a case earlier this year when a boar repeatedly visiting a primary school had to be shot dead by rangers after it became aggressive. Then there are the petty intrusions into gardens.

Some in the Forest of Dean conclude that an animal until recently considered an exotic rarity is fast becoming dangerously commonplace.

Such is the level of concern about the clash between humans and Gloucestershire's burgeoning population of Sus scrofa that Forestry Commission rangers from the area have gone on an expedition to Germany to learn how to cope with a massive increase in the naturally inquisitive foragers, which are native to Britain but died out in the 17th century because of excessive hunting.

Successive mild winters have caused Germany's wild boar population to rocket over the past two years with hunters shooting 477,000 animals this year – an increase of 66 per cent over the previous season and the highest since records began in the mid-1990s.

The free-ranging pigs, once welcomed as the centrepiece of a winter dinner table, are considered to have become a plague in Germany and Austria, where the already large population is predicted to double each year. Foraging boar are rapidly losing their inhibitions about leaving woodland and entering inhabited areas. Earlier this year, a pack of five smashed their way into a cinema in a provincial town near Frankfurt. Last year, a hunter died from his injuries after being gored by a large male boar.

The scale of Britain's nascent boar population – there are conservatively estimated to be about 1,000 feral boars in England – escaped or released from farms – pales in comparison to that of Germany. At least 10,000 live within Berlin's city limits and, in a slightly more dramatic version of Soudley FC's problems, marksmen were recently called in to Hertha BSC, the city's top football team, to cull animals found churning up the soil.

But officials in the Forest of Dean are concerned that if their boar population is allowed to grow unchecked, it could reach the epidemic proportions found on the Continent. Terry Hale, chairman of the community security committee at Forest of Dean District Council, said: "We are seeing more and more of them and they are increasingly becoming a nuisance. We don't want to get rid of the boar altogether because they are part of the area's heritage. The rangers have been to Germany because there is concern about the same thing happening over here. The situation there is pretty horrendous and we want to know what lessons have been learnt to stop it happening here."

Like other wild boar populations in Kent, Sussex, Dorset and the fringes of Dartmoor, it is thought the Forest of Dean boars originate from a handful of animals released into the wild which have then bred rapidly because of an absence of predators and a mild climate. It is estimated that there are five sounders – a group of up to 25 juveniles and sows led by a dominant sow – roaming the Gloucestershire woodland with the ability to have two litters each year.

The problem has led to calls for widespread culling of the species despite counter-claims from conservationists who point out that the animals are largely nocturnal. Rob Guest, deputy surveyor of the Forest of Dean, said: "People have been threatened or attacked – we've had at least three dogs torn apart by the boar. We've had a number of horses attacked and thrown riders. We've had boar in gardens and there's a risk to children in the gardens. So the number one requirement is to address the potential threat to public safety."

Earlier this year, Joan Ruddock, the Government's biodiversity minister, rejected a nationwide cull policy but announced individual communities and landowners will be able to kill the animals according to local need, thus reintroducing the idea of boar hunting to the United Kingdom for the first time in 400 years.

As a result, the Forestry Commission has begun sending its staff to Germany and other European countries to learn "best practice" about encouraging the animals to stay away from inhabited areas and selectively culling "problem" animals.

"We need to learn how best to deal with these new and growing boar populations," said a spokesman, "so it is sensible to look at those places where they are already having to look this issue. The problem is significant in Germany but there are places such as the Czech Republic and Sweden where numbers have grown very rapidly from nothing.

"What we need people to be aware of is that these are wild animals and they have unfortunately become tame. They lack a fear of people."

The boar war: When man and beast collide

*Staff and pupils at the Ruardean Primary School in the Forest of Dean were thrilled when a wild boar began feasting on windfall apples and dozing in the school grounds in January this year. But after five days of feeding, the animal started approaching pupils and charged a Forestry Commission ranger. The boar was destroyed. A special assembly was held to explain the reasons for the killing.

*A pack of five boars forced their way into a cinema in Rüsselheim, near Frankfurt, in September. The animals were subsequently cornered in a car park and killed by police who fired more than 100 shots in the process.

*In a separate incident in the same town, a large male boar smashed its way into a church community centre, scattering a breakfast gathering of toddlers and their parents, who were forced to leap on to tables for safety.

*In October 2007, an experienced 71-year-old hunter from Germany became the first fatality of recent times when he was gored by a heavily tusked male boar during a shoot outside Berlin. The hunter died from his injuries on the way to hospital.

*Father-of-two Russell Baker, from Soudley in the Forest of Dean, reached for the excavator when a boar broke into his garden and ripped up his lawn. He built a large wall to entirely enclose the garden so that his daughters, aged two and five, could play in safety.