Wild boar on the increase in Britain

Amid confusion as to whether or not a cull of wild boar is to be included in the Government’s forthcoming Infrastructure Bill, Julie Harding examines the arguments for and against their control.

Wild boar divide opinion—you either love them or you hate them and there is rarely any middle ground. Conservationists try to protect them, but the Forestry Commission carefully controls numbers—135 were culled during the 2013/2014 winter months in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, in an attempt to bring down the ever-expanding group of 800-plus to a more manageable 400. That area has the highest wild-boar population in Britain and there are smaller concentrations living in Devon, Somerset, west Dorset, Kent and East Sussex. Exact numbers are impossible to obtain and estimates range wildly, from 300 to 3,000.

Sightings are becoming ever more frequent and even the Royal Family has personal experience of wild-boar volatility. At the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, The Princess Royal reported that a favourite Gloucester Old Spot pig residing at her Gatcombe estate in Gloucestershire had been killed in an encounter with a feral boar.

But the debate surrounding Sus scrofa—after a 300-year absence, now re-established in pockets in Britain, mainly due to the escape of farmed boar in the 1990s and the illegal release of large groups of animals in the past decade—took a critical turn when 47-year-old Raymond Green was killed in an accident involving one on the M4 on January 5. The Royal Wootton Bassett resident was the first driver in Britain whose death has been directly attributed to a wild boar, incidentally one that wasn’t tagged and which is therefore unlikely to have originated from a nearby farm despite some press reports to the contrary.

If fatal road accidents involving boar are thankfully rare, non-fatal ones are all too common. Last year, there were 143 reported collisions in the Forest of Dean alone, almost double the 75 accidents involving deer in the same area. Dejan Vernon will never forget his wild-boar encounter. Three years ago, he was heading towards his parents’ farm near Bruton in Somerset when one ran across the road in front of his 4×4. ‘It was around midnight and I was driving past a forested area. Luckily, I wasn’t going fast or I might have hit it. I’ve hit a deer before, but I reckon my pick-up would have come off worse this time. It wasn’t a huge boar—not even as big as a Tamworth— but what struck me was how fast it could run.’

Since Mr Green’s death, there has been a flurry of activity in Government. Plans mooted in an attempt to prevent further human fatalities include the erection of warning road signs, plus barriers or fences at cer- tain points on motorways near boar-infested areas, together with renewed calls for culling.

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A Defra consultation even went so far as to advocate the eradication of the UK’s wild-boar population, but this was vetoed by Parliament. ‘And now, it’s too late,’ says Christopher Price, the CLA’s Director of Policy and Advice. ‘The challenge is that landowners and managers now have to do something. The responsibility falls on them on their land. If they haven’t introduced boar, they won’t have to pay to get rid of them, but, equally, they mustn’t treat them as sporting quarry.’

Mr Price believes that wild boar must be managed ‘for their own good, to protect the environment and, ever increasingly, to protect people’. For those looking to ‘boar-proof’ their land, however, the cost could be prohibitive. ‘To make your property deer-proof is expensive, but it’s far more costly when wild boar are involved because they’re such strong animals,’ explains Mr Price. North Wiltshire MP James Gray is a vociferous advocate of keeping wild-boar numbers under control through culling. ‘Natural England needs to discover how many there are living in the wild and, like deer, boar need to be culled when the numbers run out of control,’ he says. ‘Many people feel bad about killing animals, but if there are too many and they’re causing accidents, they need to be kept under reasonable control.’

Scott Passmore, of the welfare and conservation organisation A Wild Life with Animals, advocates contraception as an alternative means of control: ‘You have to use common sense when dealing with wild boar.’ He lives in a forested area in the Forest of Dean and, like many, enjoys seeing the creatures—which are covered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976—foraging close to his home. ‘People feed them scraps outside their gates and get problems with their neighbours when they keep coming back.’

He continues: ‘In the USA, where the hunting of wild boar is common, they have become aggressive. If we keep shooting them in the UK, the same thing will happen. Wild boar look nice and cute when they’re young, but an older animal with tusks can be unnerving.’

Incredibly, boar numbers in Britain have the potential to reach up to 40,000—Britain has enough forested areas to sustain that many—and although, due to culling, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever come even close to that number, Mr Passmore sums up the situation when he says: ‘We will have to get used to wild boar as they’re here to stay.’

Did you know?

  • Wild boar were hunted to extinction at about the end of the 13th century.
  • Various reintroductions were attempted, including two by James I into Windsor Park in 1608 and 1611.
  • The Forest of Dean became a boar ‘hotspot’ after about 60 farm-reared boar were dumped near Staunton above the Wye Valley in 2004.
  • The 800-plus wild boar recorded by the Forestry Commission in the Forest of Dean in 2014 is a near two-fold increase on the 2013 population.
  • A male can weigh up to 27.5 stone.
  • Litters typically comprise 4–6 piglets.
  • Wild boar can aid soil and plant diversity, spread seeds, live in harmony with other forest species and are good to hunt and eat.
  • However, they do spread disease, their rooting is destructive, they frighten humans and domestic animals and can cause road accidents.
  • Germany has Europe’s largest estimated population at about 600,000, with France boasting 450,000.