They are laying waste to crops in record numbers and their snouts are seriously damaging the autumn harvest. But soon the rampaging wild boar that have been causing havoc in rural areas of Germany could be gunned down by army marksmen, if farmers get their way.
The call for a military response comes from landowners in the wine and crop-growing western Rhineland-Palatinate region, where boar have destroyed hundreds of hectares of maize and torn up the earth so badly with their snouts that combine harvesters have been brought to a standstill. "The farmers are boiling with rage yet the problem can't be solved by using regular hunters anymore," said Norbert Schindler, the president of the regional farmers' union. "They are trying hard but they just can't cope. Why can't the army be drafted in to help?"
The idea of troops combating wild pigs has led to inevitable jokes about squadrons of Panzer tanks racing across fields in pursuit of herds of terrified boar. It has also brought a furious response from German hunting groups. "We don't want to wage a war against wild animals," said Kurt Michael, the president of the region's hunters' association. He dismissed the idea as ridiculous. "What would the army do? Attack them with Tornado fighter planes?" he asked.
While the army and regional governments across Germany have also lined up to criticise as cruel and unconstitutional the notion of soldiers being used to cull pigs, the farmers' demands have nevertheless highlighted the worsening boar problem. Last year, 447,000 of the animals were shot by hunters – the highest number since records began in the mid-1880s.
Germany's wild pig population has doubled annually in recent years, according to the national hunting association. Wolfgang Grether, a boar expert from southern Germany, a region equally plagued by wild pigs, says that because so many young boar died during this year's unusually cold spring, their parents simply bred again to make up the deficit.
The population explosion is attributed to a lack of natural predators – although the wolf is returning to parts of eastern Germany – and a big rise in the planting of commercial crops such as maize and rape seed. Maize is a in particular favourite of wild boar. The animals relish maize cobs and like concealing themselves in fields of fully-grown crop which they trample down.
In an attempt to stem the numbers, German hunting associations have raised cull quotas significantly for this shooting season and lifted a ban on night hunting with torches, an activity which causes boar to stand still when they are illuminated. Some hunters are even considering the introduction of a contraceptive pill for wild boar.
"This should be possible if we can distribute enough contraceptive bait in the right areas," said Josef Weitershagen, of the Rhineland-Palatinate hunters' association.
The multiplying boar population is also posing a threat to humans. There have been incidents in which herds of boar invaded a cinema and a church community centre and terrified police were called to shoo them away. In one case last year, a hunter was gored to death by a wounded boar. The increase in numbers has also given rise to a spike in animal-related traffic accidents, which caused 27 human deaths and 3,000 injuries on German roads last year.
The country's automobile association has sought to address the problem with a video. It advises drivers to plough straight into a wild boar if confronted by one on the road.