Rifles at the ready as Britain prepares to blast the boar

Pursuing foxes may be banned but hunting of boars allowed for first time in 300 years in effort to curb their rising numbers

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Wild boar are to be hunted again in England, some 300 years after they were rendered extinct here.

Hunters will be allowed to shoot the boar as game in a change to the law designed to control burgeoning numbers of the animals. About 500 wild boar and feral pigs are rooting around in the undergrowth. Many have escaped from farms, while others were released by animal rights activists. Ministers fear that if the creatures are left to breed without check their numbers could swell to the thousands.

The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs plans to allow landowners to invite hunters to shoot the animals, which can weigh up to 400lb. Under the proposals a wild boar season would run from March until August to allow sows to rear their young.

Wild populations of boar and hybrid feral pigs are established in woodland in Kent, Sussex and the Forest of Dean. There are also wild boar roaming in Dorset and Ross-on-Wye. But the population here is relatively small, compared with other European countries, because less than 9 per cent of the UK is covered by woodland, the boar's natural habitat.

In much of Europe wild boar are an important source of shooting sport's revenue. In France there are about 450,000 of the animals, while 600,000 roam the dense woodlands of Germany. Environment ministers want to control but not eradicate wild boar in the UK after considering the results of a consultation.

One senior Whitehall source said: "We think the eradication option is too extreme, so we are looking at allowing a limited cull through shooting, so boar can be treated as game."

The right to hunt boar would be the same as for any other unprotected species and would normally lie with the landowner or owner of the shooting rights.

Ministers have accepted the argument of environmentalists that the boars' existence in woodland, and their tendency to root around for acorns and other delicacies, can have a beneficial effect on the ecosystem.

The wild boar, or Sus scrofa, which has been native to Britain since the Ice Age, is considered to be a species which has a beneficial impact on English woodland. But while the snuffling of wild snouts in British forests may be welcome to walkers, farmers have warned that they destroy crops and risk spreading swine fever or even foot and mouth disease to domestic pigs.

There have also been complaints that wild boar and feral pigs damage golf courses, sports fields and gardens. Riders have complained that the shy creatures have taken them by surprise on woodland bridle paths and scared their horses. Sows, caught unawares, have even been known to attack humans whom they consider to be a threat to their young.

Farmers have urged the Government to launch an eradication programme, involving trapping and shooting. But instead of killing all the boar, ministers are preparing to allow limited hunting to control their numbers. Larger-calibre firearms will be mandatory to ensure a clean and humane kill.

Before now, wild boar were last seen in the UK at the end of the 17th century. They were reintroduced on farms in the 1980s and last year animal rights activists released about 100 from a farm in Devon. More than 40 evaded capture, even though huntsmen with dogs were employed to try to round up the elusive creatures.

About 100 huntsmen with hounds tramped on foot across fields and streams where they had been sighted. Despite using the latest technology, including mobile phones and quad bikes, they recaptured only one of the fugitive wild pigs - and that was because it wandered back towards its pen.

Boar experts said they failed to capture the animals because they were too clever. Two wild boar were spotted nearly 40 miles away near Plymouth after trotting across Dartmoor.

PEST OR PET?

SQUIRREL: Grey squirrels have proliferated almost without check and driven the red squirrel to the point of extinction. Although they damage trees and property, many enjoy watching them.

BADGER: Badgers are seen by nature lovers as gentle creatures that bring benefits to their environment. Farmers say they should be culled because they spread bovine tuberculosis.

FOX: Foxes have been at the heart of the anti-hunting debate, with a ban proving increasingly unenforceable. They have been used to control pests on fruit farms.

MOLE: Unpopular with gardeners and farmers, moles create untidy hills. Yet, thanks partly to The Wind in the Willows, they have attracted a loyal following.

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