Alexander Chancellor

Long life: Either we kill wild boars or we reintroduce wolves

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As it happens, a male wild boar can weigh roughly what Luciano Pavarotti weighed when he was alive — about 330lbs, or more than 23 stone. But unlike the gentle Pavarotti, wild boars throw their weight about in the most destructive fashion. I know a bit about this because, more than 40 years ago, my wife bought a farmhouse in Tuscany where thousands of wild boars live. Every summer they would come by night to forage in its freshly watered garden, turning it into what next morning looked like a ploughed field or building site. (Only herds of elephants in the African bush do as much damage.)

The boars also made a terrible mess of the little vineyard beside the house, for they eat anything and are surprisingly fond of grapes. We installed flashing lights to frighten them off. When this didn’t work, we replaced the lights with a device that made a loud bang every few minutes; but while this woke us up regularly throughout the night, it made no impression on them whatsoever. In the end, the problem was only solved at great expense by putting an electric fence around the entire property.

Once there were wild boars in Britain, too — in the Middle Ages boar hunting was considered the noblest and bravest of outdoor sports — but they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago, allowing this country a few centuries of peace and quiet. But then in the late 1980s one or two wild boars were spotted on Paul McCartney’s estate near Peasmarsh in East Sussex. They were assumed to have escaped from the late John Aspinall’s nearby wildlife park or from one of Britain’s handful of wild boar farms. But whatever the case, this marked the return of these ancient beasts to the English countryside, where they have been breeding so successfully that there are now thought to be at least 1,000 of them roaming the land. The exact number is impossible to know, for boars are nocturnal and nomadic, elusive and uncatchable. But they breed so fast that only a determined effort to exterminate them could prevent an alarming increase in their numbers.

The biggest concentration of wild boars in Britain at the moment is in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where they are thought to number about 600. And a surveyor for the Forestry Commission has called for a cull of about 200 of them if their number is not to get out of hand. The strange thing is that this modest proposal has met with some strident opposition. This is from conservationists who rejoice at the return to Britain of its largest ‘native’ mammal, the king of the forest, after an absence of a few hundred years. But can the wild boar be considered ‘native’ to Britain after so long an absence, especially as Britain today is itself a completely different country to the one in which wild boars once thrived, a country with a human population more than ten times larger and with very little forest left for the boar to be king of. Instead, the English countryside is a patchwork of farms and gardens in which these animals can be relied on to wreak havoc.

Wild boars trample crops, attack lambs, destroy bluebell woods and wreck gardens. Worse than any of those things, they are bearers of diseases such as swine fever, which they threaten to transmit to the domestic pig population, with potentially serious economic consequences for pig farmers. Already there have been cases of wild boars breaking into outdoor pig units and mating with domestic sows. If they don’t on the whole attack humans unless provoked, or unless they feel that their young are under threat, they appear to be becoming a serious threat to motor traffic. An indication of this was a Forestry Commission revelation that last year 22 wild boars were killed in road accidents in the Forest of Dean. And who would want to collide with an animal weighing as much as Pavarotti?

With the extinction of wolves and lynxes in Britain, wild boars have no natural predators here except humans. So either we kill them or we re-introduce wolves, as they have been doing in Tuscany, but I don’t think that would be any more popular than it is there.