Wild boars are at large in the Midlands again for the first time in 400 years. Liam Creedon roots through the hype to find out what their return means for us and the environment.
Whisper it quietly, but the UK’s woodlands have become a tad exciting again. And it has little to do with unseen ‘big cats’ doing unspeakable things to deer behind bushes.
Nor has it anything to do with the mobilisation of furious greens, spurred into action following the government’s short-lived assault on our forests last year.
No, our woods have become a place of great intrigue because, for the first time in 400 years, sizeable tracts are once again home to fearsome, hairy beasts armed with giant tusks.
Yes, the wild boar is back and the creature’s return has got more than a few people hot under the collar.
Hundreds are now thought to be rooting round the shadowy enclaves of our woodlands.
Gloucestershire, Kent, Sussex, Somerset, Dorset, Herefordshire and Devon and parts of Scotland are all thought to harbour populations, with sightings of Sus scrofa reported across the length and breadth of our isles.
Boar have been thrust, piggy-in-the-middle-style, into an argument between landowners concerned about the damage and the potential danger they pose and environmentalists delighted that one of the cornerstone species of woodland ecology has unexpectedly returned home.
The piggy assault on our landscape is a relatively recent phenomenon. The great storm of 1987 started it all off, when strong winds tore down fences at a boar farm in Kent, enabling inmates to totter off into the countryside.
This small population kept itself to itself, with only a handful of people aware that the animals were at large.
But further escapes across the country over the last decade have enabled a number of populations to establish a foothold.
So what’s the beef with the boar? Surely the return of an animal that was once part and parcel of our landscape can’t be that much of a problem?
The major concern is the potential threat boars pose. Males can reach the size of a large dog and, armed with those tusks, could make a pretty fearsome adversary if riled.
But many people who live and work near boar populations are adamant that the threat is overstated.
Rob Ward from the Friends Of The Boar group explains: “Having spent countless hours around these animals I can honestly say I have never experienced aggression, even when they have young present.
“However, although no human has been injured in the UK, dogs have been attacked – some fatally – and this is enough to start the hysteria.”
Boar take great delight in grubbing up the ground while searching for food, a habit that has not helped them in the popularity stakes.
But the soil disturbance they create is actually of great benefit to our woodlands.
Ward explains: “The boars are attracted to road verges as the soil is soft and has salty deposits, pushed to the verges by passing cars, especially in winter.
“The vast majority of people see this as damage, yet if they look past the dirt they would understand that this is soil regeneration.
“Deep in the forest they unearth dormant seeds like orchids which, if caught in their hair, can then be transferred throughout the woodland.”
The Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire has become the UK’s unofficial boar battleground.
Boar thrive in the area, and one family – known as the Beechenhurst Six due to their fondness for grubbing up soil at a visitor centre of the same name – have become a tourist attraction in their own right.
To keep numbers in check, boars in the Forest have been subject to a culling programme. The Forestry Commission has suspended this year’s cull until the autumn following concerns about low numbers.
Boar management in the Forest of Dean could well become the template for how the animals are treated throughout the rest of the UK.
Ward wants all future culls to avoid the four-month period after boar piglets are born.
He explains: “I personally support the management of the wild boars in the Forest of Dean, if required, as they have no natural predators.
“However, like all other game species in the UK, if this proves necessary then the welfare of the animal in question must come first.
“After a gestation period of four months, the vast majority of wild boar births happen in the spring. After birth, the piglets suckle for a further three to four months and during this time it is vital that they and the sow are not targeted.
“Seasonal protection during this time is of the utmost importance to enable the sow to wean her young in a stress-free environment.”
The unexpected re-introduction of the species is treading a fine line between acceptance and enmity, but for the time being, it seems the wild boar is back for good.