Why is the return of Britain's wild boar so important?
BY Chantal Lyons
6th Feb 2024 Animals & Pets
4 min read
After centuries of extinction in Britain, wild boar are finally back in English and Scottish woods. But why is this so important for us, them, wildlife and forests?
Crossing paths with a wild boar can conjure fear and joy in equal measure. Despite 700 years of extinction in Britain, the species’ own tenacity and illegal releases from the 1980s have now led to several populations emerging. However, with impacts on both people and the countryside, their right to exist in Britain is heavily debated.
However, the boar’s habitat-regenerating actions that benefit other wildlife, even if (unlike beavers) they are unloved by many. The few boar in England are threatened again by poaching and culling. Why is more not being done to prevent their re-extinction?
Naturalist, writer and science communicator Chantal Lyons addresses all these complex issues and explains what it might take for us to coexist with wild boar in her new book, Groundbreakers: The Return of Britain’s Wild Boar. In this extract, she explains the history of the wild boar in Britain.
The enduring wild boar
Most of the last millennium was not kind to the wild boar of Europe. But they endured when so many other large animals did not, and their star is ascendant once more. Their population status is rated as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which reports that the species now has one of the vastest geographical distributions of all land animals, partly thanks to humans.
"The return of wild boar in Britain was inevitable, if not intentional"
And so, with hindsight, the return of wild boar to Britain was inevitable. If not intentional. There’d been mutterings among environmentalists for decades that the species should be reintroduced. But while white-tailed eagles began to fly free from 1975, and red kites received a major boost to their recovery with the release of Spanish-born individuals starting in 1989, nothing was done for wild boar.
A taste for wild boar
Capitalism came to their aid instead. In 1981, a farm in Cambridgeshire started selling the meat of boar acquired as surplus from London Zoo’s Whipsnade site. The market got a taste for them.
More farms sprung up, buying in animals from the Continent, where they had never been extirpated and the farming of them was already long established. By the early 1990s there were 40 registered breeders in the UK.
Love of freedom
Despite thousands of years of trying, one of the qualities that has proven most challenging to breed out of the farmed pig is escapology. Those wild boar farmers should have known, and probably did. They should have taken measures to ensure their charges didn’t go wandering, which they presumably did, under the requirements of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. But life, as a certain fictional mathematician once said, finds a way.
Our woodlands had been waiting for nearly 700 years. Answering whatever call was sounding in their brains, wild boar began to escape from the farms. Or, in some cases, seem to have been variously helped out by storm damage, animal rights activists, hard-up owners and shooters. Each freed individual was a spark. Something new, something hot and bright with potential. Not all those sparks took. But enough did.
Populations in England and Scotland
In 1998 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF)—forerunner to the Department for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)—announced that two populations of wild boar had sprung up in England: one in west Dorset, and one on the border between Kent and East Sussex. In 2004, a third population joined these on the map: the Forest of Dean. Scotland followed suit when populations were officially identified in Lochaber and in Dumfries and Galloway.
"Populations have sprung up in west Dorset, Kent/East Sussex and the Forest of Dean"
Most recently, boar have popped their heads up in Somerset, although whether they will be allowed to fully establish themselves there remains to be seen. As for Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, their breadcrumbs of sightings over the years have yet to lead anywhere.
Escaping is the easiest part.
Sightings and shootings
If we want a definitive beginning, we probably can’t do better than one night in the autumn of 1989. East Sussex resident Derek Harman was enjoying a peaceful evening in front of the fire when his wife came in to say she’d seen a pig in the road. Specifically, “A big black hairy one... like those you see in nature books.”
He didn’t believe her, so they jumped in the car and drove to the village edge. Derek was about to call off the search when a final sweep of his spotlight across a field snagged on the unmistakeable form of a wild boar.
Over the next eight years, he took part in the occasional shooting of any boar that failed to keep their presence in the woods of Kent and East Sussex discreet enough. He reserved any marvel for the weight of their corpses. This came to an end when he mistakenly shot a female who had been weeks from giving birth.
“My heart sank,” he confessed. “For the very first time, I felt feelings of admiration for this wild creature that was re-establishing its presence despite the persecution from its human neighbours.”
Admiration and study of wild boar
Derek began to observe them instead, describing his experiences in his 2013 book British Wild Boar. He would put out bait and watch from a custom-built aluminium high seat that he carted around with him. His patience earned him glimpses into the way the boar were negotiating their new wild lives. Simply, they acted as if their kind had never left. They walked through the forest without a sound, never let their guard down while they fed, maintained a dominance hierarchy between different groups, and held their own against foxes and weird wolves (AKA domestic dogs).
"His patience earned him glimpses into the way the boar were negotiating their new wild lives"
One person who pops up regularly in Harman’s narrative is “the man from the Ministry”, Martin Goulding. Goulding was a scientist sent in by MAFF to study the new populations and their potential economic impacts. He ended up publishing a book too, Wild Boar in Britain. In the preface, he writes that “watching these animals below me, living freely in their ancestral habitat, is exhilarating and a privilege”.
You may have noticed a pattern beginning to emerge here.
From Kent and East Sussex to the Forest of Dean
Harman presciently subtitled his book The Story So Far. In the decade after his first encounter with a boar, most eyes fell and stayed fixed on Kent and East Sussex. After all, here was the largest population, and living in a human-dense region to boot.
Until the crown was taken by the Forest of Dean.
Groundbreakers by Chantal Lyons is available now for £20 (Bloomsbury Wildlife)
Banner photo: Wild boar (Richu Roy)
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