Special Feature: Do wild boars (Sus scrofa) belong in Britain?

THE NEWS IN BRIEF…

Killer boar? Photograph taken by Scott Passmore of the UK Wild Boar Association.

Killer on the loose? Photograph  courtesy of Scott Passmore of the UK Wild Boar Association.

If you follow British news you’ve probably heard about the escaped wild boar (Sus scrofa) in Bridgend, South Wales. The animals were being bred by a farmer in Maesteg, between Swansea and Cardiff. These were traditional wild boar, complete with tusks and spiny manes, not just ordinary (modern) pigs. Wild boar pork in the UK is considered a rare delicacy, and is supposed to have a much more gamey ‘wild’ taste than ordinary pig pork. The animals in question were released after a group broke into the property where they stole equipment and attacked the boar.

A group of boar is called a sounder, and the number of this sounder is quite high. According to the South Wales police, at least 21 have been released, although the breeder, Greg Davies is missing 42 (23 adults and 19 piglets) (South Wales Evening Post, April 28th 2014; BBC News, April 28th 2014).

WILD BOAR – ANGRY RHINOS OR OVERGROWN HAMSTERS?

Greg Davies has also gone on record suggesting that the wild boar should be shot on sight.  In the South Wales Evening Post (April 28th 2014) he asserts:

  • ‘They are dangerous animals and should not be approached.’
  • ‘They will attack if they smell blood. Farmers with new lambs in their fields need to keep their eyes open for the boars.’
  • ‘I’m advising them [farmers] to shoot them straight away. They are carrion animals and will attack.’

Of course, Davies is likely to be held responsible if the boar do attack anyone, so from his point of view it would be better if they could all be exterminated as soon as possible. This is particularly the case since escaped wild boar in Britain readily adapt to life in the wild. If a population did become hard to remove, he could potentially be held responsible for all the aggressive acts towards people and property.

On the other hand, a completely contrary view is held by Iolo Williams. Williams is a Welsh television presenter for the BBC and a naturalist. Since he is employed by the BBC he was a very easy source for them to produce for their article of the same day (BBC News, April 28th 2014). According to him:

  • ‘They are very secretive, they are very shy and probably the first thing they’ll do is they’ll head for woodland cover.’
  • ‘All you have to do [with boar in gardens] is just open the door and off they go immediately. They do not want that contact with people.’

Williams is hardly an unbiased source on the matter either. Obviously from a television wildlife point of view, the possibility of filming some wild boar in South Wales is a fantastic opportunity. We might cynically point out that since Williams doesn’t live in the area, it is easy for him to see the positive side of the situation and belittle the dangers.

However in this case Iolo Williams’ review of the situation is more trustworthy. Wild boar are common throughout Europe and do not normally pose a significant danger to human life. Humans are sometimes attacked, especially in the November-January rutting season, and fatalities have been known to occur, but these are extremely rare (newsworthy) occurrences (see: Gunduz et al. 2007, USDA, 2012). Boar are less dangerous than for example, uncastrated bulls and escaped dogs. Wild boar which have become habituated to humans through feeding are likely to be more aggressive (UKWBA, 2013). During the breeding season, dogs are at risk if not on a lead, but according the UK Countryside Code, dogs should be under control at all times anyway (Natural England, 2012).

 

WILD BOAR IN BRITISH HISTORY (scroll down for modern parallels)

The local extinction date of the wild boar in Britain is hard to establish with surety, and was probably later in Scotland than in south Britain. The trouble is, hunting venery species like deer and boar was one of the most popular and fashionable pastimes in the medieval period. The first ‘parks’ in Britain were created mainly to contain animals, most importantly the introduced fallow deer, but also wild boar. It is possible that wild boar could have been kept in captivity like this for centuries after being lost from the wild (see Yalden, 1999, p.168).

Historically, there are legends of the ‘last wild boar in Britain’ ranging in date until the end of the seventeenth century (Dent, 1974, pp.78-9). Archaeologically the boar has a very low profile and zooarchaeologists are more inclined to believe that the extinction happened much earlier, with the animals in decline by the ninth century and functionally extinct by the thirteenth (Pierce & Sykes in Sykes, 2007, pp.54, 66). The reason for this discrepancy between historical and archaeological sources is unknown. Sykes (ibid) has pointed out that historical sources from the fifteenth century are dominated by hunting texts. Since this genre started in France, and the hunting texts are a very derivative group of texts, they might describe the fauna of France rather than Britain. In this case the presence of the wild boar would not surprise us even if wild boar were extinct in Britain by this time. Unfortunately this explanation is not acceptable. Although the hunting texts are strongly influenced by French faunal evidence, they all excise references to the wolf which they admit is extinct (in south Britian). The date of the extinction of the wild boar remains an open question.

This is all a very complicated way to say that we’re not sure about when the wild boar went extinct in Britain. What we can say is that wild boar were definitely rooting up the earth and taking mud-baths in woodland areas across Britain up until at least 800 years ago. They were lost in an embarrassing moment in British history, when short-sighted aristocrats rode across the land with their hounds and hunted them down for sport.

However one thing is clear. When we introduce a foreign species into Britain, it can cause severe damage to the natural world and human interests. The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as a carrier of squirrel-pox, drove the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) into the northern and western extremes of the island. The mink (Neovison vison) has decimated supplies of water-voles (Arvicola amphibius). The wild boar is unlikely to have a negative effect on the ecosystem. This is because Britain’s modern woodland ecosystem has been evolving for over ten thousand years (since the end of the last glacial period). Wild boar have a niche within this system, and even have functions within the ecosystem which are currently missing.

I’m looking forward to exploring historical accounts of wild boar in another entry.  The animals are very common although the distinction between wild boar and domestic pigs is not always clear. Depictions range from emphasising their toughness and fearlessness to describing their sagacity at finding their way to amazing places. If you ever need to find your way to the leprosy-curing hot-spring of Bath, or sneak-in to the mystical island of Avallon, you should take a wild boar (preferably an old wise sow) with you. At a pinch you can just talk to a piglet. The earliest depictions of Merlin are the Welsh stories of mad, naked Myrddin who sits in an apple tree and prophesies to a piglet in The Black Book of Carmarthen. Perhaps he was practicing his patience, for when he had to advise stubborn King Arthur of later legends.

Some of the most interesting historical accounts explain that semi-feral boar used to roam the streets of major cities. In London, only the Hospitallers of St Anthony had the right, but elsewhere the right was general. Wild boar will scavenge and eat carrion like modern seagulls, pigeons and foxes. The animals served a really useful role in the centuries of inadequate or non-existent plumbing and no refuge collection, and also could be bred without need to provide food. They were only thrown out of Haddington, South Scotland by the Assizes of 1543, and may have stayed in Cardiff until 1785, (Ritchie, 1920, pp.223-5; Matheson, 1932, p.36). Even then the worry was more about keeping the streets clean than about public health.

Not all the wild boar were lost though. Here’s something you might not know. ‘Pannage’ was the medieval practice of sending domestic pigs into woodland areas to fend for themselves each autumn. Their main diet in the woodland was acorns from oak trees. Even though acorns were not normally used for any other purpose, they were considered so important for pigs to eat that the oak tree harvest was anxiously watched each year (although contra see Rackham, 1986, p.122).

Why does this matter? When the domestic pigs were in the forest, they may have sometimes met the last surviving wild boar. Wild boar and domestic pigs are the same species (Sus scrofa), and in the early medieval period there were only minor differences between the two types. Offspring from interbreeding may have been common. Over time the types grew apart, and medieval Latin made a distinction between ‘aper’ (male wild boar) and ‘verres’ (male tame pig). Pigs may be the only animals in Britain to have descended from native stock, unlike cattle, sheep, cats and dogs which were all of imported stock.

Our modern stocks of pigs probably lost their hair, tusks and other boar-like characteristics due to the attentions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century improvers (Trow-Smith, 1959). These livestock farmers selectively bred some cows for beef, some to give more milk, and bred pigs to be especially fat to make good pork. Seeing this artificial selection was part of what helped inspire the modern theory of evolution by natural selection.

 

A MODERN PERSPECTIVE

It should be pointed out that the escaped boar from Maesteg are not the only wild boar loose in Britain. There are now hundreds of escaped animals, most notably in the Forest of Dean. These animals are not present as part of an officially sanctioned re-introduction, and have not been officially welcomed. They are classed by the oxymoronic term ‘feral wild boar’ by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Natural England. This means they lack the protection which other native species have and could be removed without notice if local policies change.

The wild boar population in the Forest of Dean has not been allowed to breed to carrying capacity, nor perhaps should it be. Compared to the medieval period, the area is densely inhabited. All the boar’s natural predators, most importantly the wolf (Canis lupus) are extinct in the country. Frustratingly it is also in the wild boar’s nature to root up grassy verges, lawns and pitches. This is the reason why human-fed pigs often have rings through their noses. The Forest of Dean’s community is divided by this matter. Advocates point out that wild boar are good for the forest ecosystem and drive tourism to the area. Critics point out the high cost of repairs to grassy areas, the boar’s intimidating nature, and the boar’s long absence from the area.

The wild boar of the Forest of Dean are the responsibility of the Forestry Commission which has culled animals each year since 2008. Population estimates range from 350-600, and the Forestry Commission aim to keep population numbers at around 400. Another 200 animals may be culled this year (Philipson, 2014).

 

CONCLUSIONS

There is a lot of hype about this subject. Considering that wild boar are definitely native to Britain, were only lost recently due to human persecution, and are able to live peacefully alongside humans it can be hard to understand modern attitudes towards the animals. Why should the Bridgend boars be shot on sight if they are not really dangerous? Why does the UK government call the animals in the Forest of Dean ‘feral wild boar’? And lastly, why do wild boar living in a forest need such vigorous control?

Is this a British problem? Humans have been lethally controlling animals in Britain for centuries, and continue to do so. Game-bird keepers shoot predators like foxes, stoats and feral cats. Since the year 2000 around 100,000 red deer (Cervus elaphus) have been culled each year in Scotland to prevent road traffic accidents and damage to trees.  Certainly, in Europe humans and wild boar coexist peacefully and without hysteria.

Image (by Magnus Manske?) in the public domain.

Image (by Magnus Manske?) in the public domain.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine life in modern Britain without ‘wildlife management’. The use of fences to keep out deer and domestic animals was a major concern in the medieval period and a significant financial burden on landowners. In medieval Ireland, land could not be sold if the landowner did not have secure fences in place, and fenceless landowners were not entitled to any compensation if neighbouring farm animals broke onto their land (Kelly, 1988, p.99-100, 142). In the modern period such measures would cost billions, and would still not be foolproof. Even if humans protected their financial interests, deer and wild boar at carrying capacity with no remaining natural predators could even do considerable damage to Britain’s ecosystems. For the present, some level of control is justified. But there’s no need to be hysterical. The aim should be control and not extermination. Ultimately, wild boar in Britain are not a sinister alien presence, they are a beneficial missing native.

 

A note on terminology: I use the term ‘wild boar’ to refer to wild-living and unimproved Sus scrofa. The term is used for male and female animals, and follows the example of previous academics on the subject (see Yalden, 1999, p.165). I also use the plural ‘wild boar’ rather than ‘wild boars’ which is equally acceptable.

 

REFERENCES

BBC News, (April 28th 2014) ‘Arrests after wild boar let loose in Maesteg burglary’. (BBC News online).

Dent, A. (1974) Lost Beasts of Britain. (Harrap, London).

Sykes, N. (2007) The Norman Conquest: A zooarchaeological perspective. (British Archaeological Reports, Oxford).

Gunduz, A. et al. (2007) ‘Wild Boar Attacks’. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 18:117-9.

Matheson, Colin. (1932) Changes in the Fauna of Wales within Historic Times. (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).

Natural England, (2012) The Countryside Code. (Natural England Website).

Philipson, A. (2014) Half of wild boar face cull in Forest of Dean amid concern over dog attacks and spooked horses. (The Telegraph, March 10th 2014).

Rackham, O. (1986) The History of the Countryside. (1995 ed., Weidenfeld &Nicolson, London).

Ritchie, J. (1920) The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland: A Study in Faunal Evolution. (Cambridge University Press).

South Wales Evening Post, (April 28th 2014) ‘Wild boars owner urges farmers to “shoot on sight” after he reveals more than 40 of the dangerous beasts are roaming free’. (South Wales Evening Post online).

Sykes, N. (2007) The Norman Conquest: A zooarchaeological perspective. (British Archaeological Reports, Oxford).

Trow-Smith, R. (1959) A History of British Livestock Husbandry, 1700-1900. (2006 ed., Routledge, Oxford).

UKWBA (UK Wild Boar Association), (2013) Please do not feed the wild boar. (Wild Boar Association website).

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) (et al.), (2012) Feral Swine Management Report. (Wildlife Services).

Yalden, D. (1999) The History of British Mammals. (Poyser Natural History, London).

 

 

 

 

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