I stood in the dark as still and quiet as I could, holding my breath, scanning the trees and straining to hear something other than the steady pattering of rain on the fallen leaves. There it was again, the soft grunting, snuffling sound of a wild boar.
The boar in the Forest of Dean are somewhat controversial. Released by a farmer who was not supossed to be keeping them, or so I am told by a forestry commission ranger, the boar quickly settled into the forest and in the past 10 years since their release they have flourished in their natural habitat, and with no natural predators it is thought that their numbers have risen from a handful of escaped or dumped individuals to between 600-1000 animals. The wild boar are currently culled at around 100 animals per year in an effort to control their numbers, an effort which many locals feel is ineffective.
As I walked around the forest evidence of boar activity was abundant. The drizzly conditions meant plenty of mud where foot prints remained long after the boars departure. Trails in the wet leaves and barely noticeable gaps in the undergrowth showed me where the boar travelled, their nocturnal highways where I had heard them moving the previous night. But by far the most obvious signs of them were the large patches of rooted up turf found on verges and pathways. It is this rooting behaviour which causes so much controversy for the local people.
As the boars search for worms, roots and tubers they disturb large areas of ground, this can be very beneficial for the plants of the forest, turning the soil and allowing the dispersal of seeds. However it can also be very destructive to plants such as bluebells which have become iconic to British woodlands and with increasing numbers the boar are also venturing into gardens and villages and where their routing behaviour is causing damage to managed areas of lawn and flower beds.
Arguments surrounding the boar are highly emotive. Supporters objecting to calls for further culling argue that a proper study of numbers is needed to ascertain current population size as well as sustainable population size rather than resorting to blind culls. They also call for fencing and gating of areas to keep boar out of places they are not wanted. Those who object to their presence argue that as the boar were introduced accidentally and without public consultation they are pests and should be dealt with as such. There is also often reference to attacks on dogs by boar and worry over the safety of walkers who encounter these strong animals. However these attacks are rare, and most likely to occur when the boar are nursing piglets. Like any animal they will attack when they feel threatened and to a boar there is no difference between your pet dog and a wolf looking for a quick meal. A recent poll conducted by a local paper tried to gather public opinion in the Forest of Dean as to whether or not the boar should be culled. The resounding “no” outcome was contested by some as the poll had been shared on social media sites and so included votes from people all over the UK and beyond, the suggestion was that only those living with wild boar in their backyard should have a say about their fate.
Though I can understand this assertion, my influence in this poll for example could be deemed invalid as I myself do not have to put up with the consequences such as replanting my garden every few days, I cannot help but feel it is not as simple as that. The question over the wild boar in the Forest of Dean is part of a wider context, one that concerns the attitudes towards wildlife in the whole of the UK. We happily hold the view that Africa must conserve it lions and elephants and that India must not hunt endangered tigers despite not being the ones who must live with these animals in their backyard, and yet when it comes to our own wildlife even the humble badger comes under fire for ‘threatening our livestock’. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers but it would seem that this is only the case as long as the animals are either domestic or keep to areas we deem suitable for them.
In order to reconnect to our environment and the creatures we share it with we need to understand them, we need to overcome the challenges and conflicts in ways which are of benefit to the animals and not just ourselves, this is why the boar in the Forest of Dean are just as important to me in Dundee as those in whose gardens they stray. Their fate is tied up with the fates of all other reintroductions and attitudes towards them could influence attitudes to other species too.
However we need to find balance, too many boars has just as big an impact on the environment as none at all, and as we have removed their natural predators (wolf, lynx, bears) we have to do the job… for now. Perhaps one day we will be able to live with wolves in our backyards as well.
During my stay in the Forest of Dean, despite several forays into the drizzly forest the wild boar remained elusive… until driving along a forest lined road I saw a lone boar trotting through the trees. This fleeting glimpse seemed only fitting, a teaser to leave me wanting more. One day I shall return to the forest and resume my hunt for wild boar.