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Wild boars of Kent cause havoc in the hop gardens Wild boar hunt

A CHILL wind whistled through the trees, whipping up the autumn leaves carpeting the forest floor. In the dense undergrowth, rustling noises could be heard. Was that a faint grunting in the distance?

Here, deep in woodland on the Kent and East Sussex border, lurks a colony of wild boars that has become the scourge of farmers. The boars are blamed for ravaging fields and wrecking crops in search of food. Some say that they even snatch lambs by moonlight.

A study published by the Ministry of Agriculture earlier this week estimated that about 100 of the creatures are roaming the area, with another 20 or so in Dorset. It plans to commission more research before deciding whether they pose enough of a health risk to justify turning a shotgun on the lot of them.

Jenny Farrant, who owns Great Knelle Farm in Beckley, near Tenterden, laughs hollowly. "If I had my way, they'd all be machine-gunned," she says. "But it's too late, the population is way out of control."

Inside the farmhouse, visitors are greeted by the baleful gaze of a trophy wild boar head hanging on the wall. Sadly, it is no deterrent to surviving members of the species, who have been plaguing the Farrants for the past eight years."They've rooted up our hop garden; it looked like the Somme," she says. "And they've taken lambs in the night. All you find in the morning are little hooves."

Beckley Garage is regularly called upon to repair vehicles damaged by boars that can weigh up to 300lb. "If a car is in collision with a boar, the car comes off worse," says Mrs Farrant. Down the road, John Taylor, of Little Harmers Farm, is dejected. "They rooted up a six-acre maize field," he says. "There's no point replanting it because they'll just come and dig it up again."

The National Farmers' Union wants the ministry to order a cull of the boars, which were hunted to extinction in this country in the 17th century. The current population originates in the 40 or so commercial farms that rear them for their succulent meat. Many scampered to freedom when the 1987 hurricane flattened fences.

The NFU's concern is that they mate with domestic pigs, spreading disease. Cross-breed feral boars are now common; the Farrants keep a crossed Tamworth/wild boar called Wilhemina as a pet. The ministry refers to them as "free- living boars", which is not so far from the truth, according to Isobel Bretherton, of the NFU's south-east region.

"When the mood takes them, they are utterly indiscriminate," she says. "They lift up fences with their snouts, plough straight ahead and mount the nearest female in sight."

There have been several reports of boars attacking humans. Although shy and reclusive, they can turn nasty when cornered.

Some environmentalists want to reintroduce a native species. Mrs Farrant snorts. "It would be nice to reintroduce brown bears and wolves too, particularly into the Home Counties," she says, raising her eyebrows heavenwards.