Hunters go on wild boar safari in darkest Dorset

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BIG GAME hunters may soon be lured from Africa in an attempt to control Britain's rapidly expanding number of wild boar.

Specially trained marksmen are shooting escaped wild pigs across southern England and there are predictions that European sport huntsmen may be invited to join in if numbers are not brought under control soon.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (Maff) is so concerned at the growth of the population that it has begun an investigation into potential damage to the countryside and the best means of culling the animal.

And, in contrast to the outcry over fox hunting, most conservation groups are keen to see the boars' numbers fall.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has issued farmers with an authorised list of hunters. The association predicts that if the wild pig population continues to expand it won't be long before European hunters stop going to Namibia to shoot gemsbok and head instead for Dorset to shoot boar.

Wild boar, often weighing up to 350 pounds and six feet long, are roaming southern England from Kent to Dorset. Bred on farms as "exotic" meat, animals have escaped and established an estimated 1,000-strong population since the 1980s.

Conservation groups fear that wild pigs could ravage meadows and farmland and pass on diseases to other animals. There have already been reports of wild boar attacking dogs belonging to walkers and farmers.

"This is a serious issue," said Jeffrey Olstead of the BASC. "If you look at the rate at which they are reproducing and the fact they have no natural predators, then it is only a matter of time before there is a nasty incident."

The free population of wild boar is now so large that the BASC has held talks with the British Wild Boar Association (BWBA) on the best way to tackle the issue. "We are worried they might cross-breed with pigs because there is a possibility they may carry swine fever," said Keith Taylor, director of the BWBA, which represents farmers who breed wild boar commercially.

In France, where the wild boar population is 700,000 - a nine- fold rise since 1975 - wild pigs regularly tear up vineyards, gardens and crops.

Felix Hughes, a former boar hunter turned conservationist, cautioned against panic: "We need a professional approach rather than a gung-ho one which won't do the wild boar or humans any good. They are not razor- backed killing machines. They're shy, but they do have a temper. They will try and avoid you, but like any animal if you come between the mother and its young or it is wounded there is a chance it will get annoyed."

The last native wild boar reputedly met its death in 1617 on the end of King James I's spear in Windsor Park.