Should We Fear the Boar?

 A sounder of wild boar

A sounder of wild boar

What have the British got against wild boar? 800 years ago they trotted about our woodlands as freely as squirrels or pine martens. On the rest of the continent they still do. Occasionally if you don’t exercise enough caution you can get stampeded by an angry male. In 1357 King Edward III was out hunting boar in Knaresborough Forest in North Yorkshire when an angry boar (perhaps it didn’t enjoy being hunted) charged straight at the dismounted king. A charging boar is a fiercesome sight. A male can weigh about 200kg and run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. This regicidal boar was speared in the nick of time by a local landowner in the hunting party. That landowner was duly knighted by the King, and since then his descendants continue to enjoy the extended privileges of baronetcy.

Since those benighted times the British have hunted wild boar to extinction and don’t want them back, though there have been many attempts to reintroduce them. In France there are about 2 million wild boar running about the countryside. In fact numbers are on the increase.  This summer the beaches of the French Riviera were populated by otherwise shy boar and their piglets trying to find water sources in an unusually dry season.

Apart from this, and despite many people’s fears of unprovoked attack, boars do not ordinarily come near us. In truth wild boar tend to avoid contact with humans. A recent study in Poland between different populations of wild boar shows this. Scientists observed wild boars living in and around the city of Cracow, a densely human-populated area, and compared their behaviours with a group of boars in Bialowieza Forest Park, a huge area of wilderness in Eastern Poland.

The Cracow city boars limited their foraging range, though they travelled further distances to find food, and they shunned the daylight when humans dominated the landscape, confining themselves to nocturnal foraging. The Bialowieza boars on the other hand foraged during daytime as well as nighttime hours and ranged over twice the area per head of boar than that of the city boars. Boar are as cautious of humans as we are of them, with more reason.

Even the hunting magazine, The Field agrees that wild boar are not that dangerous, unless the males are rutting and in a hyper-aggressive state, or when females are protecting a young litter. Then they will only charge if they feel threatened by an approaching human. When due care and respect is shown there is no reason to fear the wild boar.

Where they do pose a problem is when they intrude on agricultural land and, thinking it must be Christmas, gorge themselves on fields of maize, turnips, cabbages and other crops. Farmers understandably get quite annoyed by this kind of damage to their profit margins and don't want boars roaming unchecked around the countryside.

But wild boar are living secretly in many areas of Britain. Sounders of boar (a group with mothers and piglets) have been spotted in the Forest of Dean, the woodlands of Kent and East Sussex, agricultural land in Gloucester, and in Scotland there are around 1000 wild boar roaming free around the woods and glens, though it is believed some have been cross-bred with pigs. In Lochaber last year gamekeepers allegedly complained that 'hordes' of escaped boar were causing  damage to livestock. 

As we write the Scottish government is conducting an investigation into the benefits and disadvantages of allowing the wild boar to remain. The advantages to the woodland floor are tremendous. In Bialoweiza Forest National Park in Poland wild boar have contributed massively to biodiversity with their rooting and foraging by making room for a dynamic array of plant species to thrive. In Scottish woodland mono-species tend to dominate and wild flowers struggle to survive amid brutish bracken and bramble. Moderation in numbers is clearly required so that agriculture doesn't suffer, but their presence in woodland must surely be welcomed.

Boar are happiest in deciduous and mixed woodland but they are not averse to fields, marshes and moorlands can thrive in a mixture of habitats and in all weathers. 90% of what they eat is plant life, but they can feed on a wide variety of foods: tree mast – acorns, chestnuts or beechnuts, mice and small reptiles, mushrooms, insects. Occasionally they have been known to kill young lambs and ducks. Boars have acute hearing and a highly developed sense of smell but limited eyesight.

Below is a video of a domestic dog playing with some wild boar during a woodland walk. All the animals, and even the watching humans, seem to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. Where's the fear?