Boar hunting may become legal again after 300 years

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The Independent Online

The government that banned fox hunting has moved a step closer yesterday to reintroducing a blood sport that died out in Britain during the reign of the Stuarts.

Legislation is expected later this year that would allow sportsmen and women armed with high-powered rifles to go into the woods of Kent and other parts of southern England in pursuit of the wild boar.

More than three centuries have passed since these huge but shy creatures terrorised British villages. But in the past few years, they have re-established themselves in at least three parts of the country, after escaping from farms or being set free by animal rights activists.

Just before Christmas about 100 boars were allegedly released by activists from the Woodland Wild Boar Farm near South Molton, Devon. Two weeks later, the nearby Dulveston Farmers' Hunt went out on a wild boar chase, which culminated in the recapture of one of the missing animals.

There are thought to be between 100 and 200 living around the Weald, on the border of Kent and East Sussex. There are about another 20 to 30 in west Dorset, and a few have been detected around Ross-on-Wye. Government experts have estimated that unless they are controlled, their numbers could increase to around 9,000 within 20 years.

Yesterday, the Department of the Environment published the results of a four-month consultation with pig breeders, conservationists and other interested parties. About 80 per cent warned that something would have to be done to keep the numbers down. The prefered solution was to allow boar-hunting during autumn and winter, with strict rules on the calibre of guns allowed, to avoid the risk that the animals could be merely injured by light guns. Hunting would be banned between 1 March and 31 August, to allow mothers to rear their young.

One argument that raged among the respondents was whether this was a British animal returning to its old habitat, or an alien invader like the grey squirrel or Spanish bluebell. Of those responding, 43 per cent said it was an intruder and should be eradicated.

The people in this group tended to be farmers or traders, afraid that wild boars would be carriers of swine fever or foot-and-mouth disease. The last outbreak of swine fever was a relatively limited one in East Anglia in 2000, yet it cost the taxpayer £17.4m. The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak cost billions.

Government scientists had warned that if the animal was to be eradicated, it will be a long and expensive operation. In the 1980s, the Government decided to remove all 10,000 coypu, a large water-loving South American rodent that was infesting East Anglia. It took 24 trappers eight years to do this, and cost £4m. There is an operation still in progress to remove all wild mink from the Western Isles, which will have taken five years and cost £1.7m by the time it is finished.

But the majority of those who responded to the Department of the Environment's consultation believed that the wild boar had a right to return to these shores. They were in Britain for a long time before humans arrived and were respected and feared by the medieval people. Richard III used the boar as his heraldic emblem. Shakespeare's line, "Where he shall see the boar will use us kindly" refers to the king, not the animal.

The Woodland Trust argued that there was a "strong case" for allowing the animals to roam because they actually help the spread of plant life. Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall, who was an agriculture minister in the last Tory government, argued: "We devote considerable resources to persuading other countries, notably in Africa, Asia and South America, to look after their wild-animal populations and allow them space to live in despite the damage they can do. We should apply the same principles to ourselves."