To take a snowy woodland walk in the depths of winter is to enter an almost strange new world – the landscape is starkly monochrome and all sounds are muted. For residents of Sussex, Dorset, Gloucestershire and parts of Scotland, the alien nature of this world has recently become even more pronounced – and tinged with just a hint of risk too . . .
After at least 500 years’ absence, one of Europe’s largest – and potentially most dangerous – mammals has made a dramatic return.
It chased me and my dogs for a good half mile . . . I could not believe how big this thing was, or how far it chased us . . . I had to run like hell. The dogs didn’t do anything to upset it . . . [and it had] no sign of injury, not that I looked too closely.
Forest of Dean resident, Simon, is only one of a growing list of innocent woodland ramblers to report problems with our rapidly increasing wild boar population. These intelligent, social, creatures can weigh up to 500lbs and males are armed with razor-sharp six-inch tusks. They once roamed free in our forests and were so common as to have left their mark in numerous place names (Everton comes eofor, Anglo-Saxon for wild boar). Unfortunately they can also devastate crops, break down fences to mate with domestic swine. Add to this that they are challenging ‘beasts of the chase’ which taste delicious and the result was their extermination by the 15th century.
They are now back in force, however. Although the exact source of their return is unclear, the roots lie with the culinary revolution of the 1980s. Nouvelle cuisine saw boar appearing regularly on menus. As demand rose, so enterprising farmers cashed in on this new premium meat (it tastes mid-way between pork and venison and retails at five times the price of the former).
The first reported break-outs occurred during the hurricane of 1988 when falling trees destroyed fences in Kent. Others were deliberately freed, sometimes as businesses went bankrupt, more often by animal rights activists. The fugitives readily took to life in our woods: hardly surprising for a former native which is still roams almost everywhere else in Europe.
Many conservationists are delighted, seeing the return of prodigal sons which fit in naturally to the woodland eco-system. Most walkers are also thrilled to catch sight of a ‘sounder’ (group) bounding across a ride or foraging quietly in a forest glade. Problems can emerge, however – and are most likely in May when the piglets begin to join their mothers rooting among the undergrowth for bulbs and worms.
The wolf is the boar’s principle predator across most of its range and thus sows have an instinctive loathing of their domesticated relatives. The normally retiring creatures will readily charge at any dog near their piglets – particularly when these are small and vulnerable. The direct risk to humans is still relatively low (although being bowled over by 300lbs of fast-moving pot roast is far from pleasant), but several dogs have been badly injured by lacerations from tusks and crushing bites from their powerful jaws.
With no natural predators, the population has grown rapidly since the first escapes. The pre-breeding season population on the Kent/Sussex border is now probably around 250, with the three other main clusters in Dorset, Devon and the Forest of Dean numbering around 100 each. This means sightings – and occasional attacks – are likely to become increasingly frequent. This will undoubtedly cause alarmist headlines, but then again, many people would see the risk as no more than minor compensation for our ancestor’s ruthless extermination policy some six centuries ago.