British wild boar are firmly on the national agenda. Recent appearances on the BBC’s Autumnwatch and a shocking headline in the Daily Mail this summer, referring to ‘Ferocious’ boars who roam the Forest of Dean, are testimony to the UK boar issue turning mainstream and becoming one of genuine public interest.

Over the past 25 years, farm escapees and deliberate releases have led to populations of free-living wild boar recolonising parts of the UK; and conflict and controversy have followed suit.

So are British boar feral or wild? Game or vermin?

Harmless or dangerous? Interested parties have widely differing views on how these animals should be classified and treated.

What’s not disputed is that all populations are rapidly reproducing, and in many areas are multiple generations on from the original escapees.

Wild boar have a cultural, agricultural, ecological, social and economic impact, and the accidental (or deliberate) reintroduction of this former native mammal has had irrefutable consequences.

The population attracting by far the most attention is that residing in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

The resident population is thought to be the largest in the UK, though an exact figure is fiercely debated.

The Forest of Dean is managed by the Forestry Commission (FC) and forms part of the public forest estate with open access rights for all.

The 27,000 acres of forest play host to several thousand local residents as well as 250,000 visitors a year, making daily human and wild boar interactions unavoidable.

Ian Harvey, chief wildlife ranger for the Forest of Dean, explained that wild boar habitually rest in thick cover during the day to avoid human disturbance. “Wild boarshould be a crepuscular or nocturnal species — meaning they are mostly active at twilight, foraging at dawn and dusk,” he said, adding, “The frenzied media attention in the Forest of Dean is focused on the fact that, for whatever reason, some boar have lost, or never had,their natural instinct for caution around people, leading to uncharacteristic behaviour. Damage to gardens and property suffered by the several villages inside the forest is also becoming a major issue.”

Ian continued that, being omnivorous, the boar’s appetite can cause problems. “Some animals have learned to beg like dogs at picnic areas and allow people to hand-feed them.” Ian went on to say that he has received several reports of children, including toddlers, queuing up to feed these apparently tame animals at recreation areas. “The boar’s unnatural behaviour has led to some extraordinary photos gaining national press attention,” said Ian.

It is not understood why this behaviour has manifested itself but it is clear that the urbanised ‘celebrity’ boar are fast becoming a sideshow in the Forest of Dean.

One fact that cannot be ignored is that, though there have been no reported wild boar attacks on humans in the UK, the species is listed on the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.

Throughout Europe, where boar numbers are significantly greater, attacks — though not a regular occurrence — do happen.

Ian explained that boar, like all animals, have the possibility of behaving in an unpredictable manner.

“If threatened, boar will defend themselves with vigour, particularly a sow protecting its young.

There have been six reported attacks on dogs in the Forest of Dean, sadly ending in one death and another dog suffering 26 stitches and the owner receiving a large vet bill,” said Ian.

Is it now only a matter of time until a serious incident occurs involving a member of the public, raising the difficult question of accountability?

After public consultations in 2005 and 2006, DEFRA published the highly anticipated Feral wild boar in England: An action plan.

This document states that DEFRA policy is that primary responsibility for feral wild boar management lies with local communities and individual landowners.

Many stakeholders dismissed DEFRA’s long-awaited response to the growing wild boar issue as weak and non-committal.

The policy made the FC — whose parent governmental department is DEFRA — ultimately responsible for the management of wild boar in the Forest of Dean.

There was no supporting legislation, nor any guidance, to accompany the action plan, even though DEFRA stated that it would help to facilitate the policy through the provision of advice and guidance.

Nearly three years later, the Deer Initiative (an organisation partly funded by DEFRA) released six best-practice guides relating to the management of free-living wild boar in the UK.

It is worth noting that the management of deer is controlled by the Deer Act 1991.

There are six species of deer, three of which are non-native and governed by this Act.

The Deer Act provides all six species with a plethora of legal protection ranging from legal minimum calibres to close seasons (with the exception of muntjac).

Leaving aside the fact that wild boar are a former native species, British boar are viewed by government as an invasive and non-native species.

Wild boar are protected against acts of cruelty by the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, but this is non-specific.

Owing to this lack of legislation, management practices are open to individual interpretation and the FC in the Forest of Dean often finds itself in the news, as the subject of sensationalist headlines.

“We are at the vanguard of boar management in the UK,” stated Ian. “In spite of the availability of comprehensive guidelines in Europe, there’s no textbook to follow for boar management in this country.

As a government department, we closely follow DEFRA’s policies and the Deer Initiative’s best practice guides on all aspects of boar management within the Forest of Dean.”

Soon after DEFRA’s Action Plan was published, the Forest of Dean District Council set up a task group to investigate the issue of wild boar living in their constituency.

The group’s investigation included a period of public consultation, concluding with a report being delivered to the District Council’s Scrutiny Committee in June 2009.

The committee recommended that the FC should control the boar on the public forest estate to a level of low density or 90 animals (the population estimated at that time) and that boar should be encouraged to remain in the wooded areas of the forest.

Ian revealed that estimating the population continually causes passionate debate: “Without the benefit of a thorough scientific census, we have to decide our annual cull figure based on impact rather than an exact number.

Our drivers behind management are socio-cultural and mitigating risk.”

Dr Martin Goulding, the UK’s leading voice on wild boar, commented that the potential population in the Forest of Dean at maximum density could be as many as 1,100 animals.

This is based on maximum densities of wild boar recorded in European populations of 10 animals per km2, and that the Forest of Dean is 110km2.

Using a more typical density of three to four animals per km2, Dr Goulding suggested that the number of animals likely to be found in the Forest of Dean would be between 330 and 440. “Obviously this is a simplification, but it gives an idea of maximum boar and more typical numbers that may occur,” he concluded.

So with a species that has the ability to breed all year, produce litters of up to eight piglets and treble its population every 12 months, and a perfect habitat that can support a maximum density of 1,100 animals, how will the FC manage the population to the agreed low density of just 90 animals?

Since 2009 the FC has actively managed the population to maintain the boar at the agreed level.

Ian explained that this year 153 boar were culled in six months. “We used the same number of rangers and identical techniques as last year, with the cull completed in half the time,” he said.

Does this therefore demonstrate the population is growing?

“The management has been carried out throughout the year with no close season in line with the DEFRA Action Plan,” he pointed out. This has created conflict with pressure and animal rights groups who believe a close season is necessary on the grounds of animal welfare and sustaining a natural breeding cycle.

Ian continued: “It is not up to us on a local level to set national policy on close seasons for wild boar.

In our latest wild boar management plan we acknowledged the birthing peak in the spring, and we employ a ‘fluid’ or voluntary close season, whereby FC staff will not cull lactating sows or animals with dependants at hoof.”

As land managers, Ian and the FC have an obligation to manage the boar in the Forest of Dean. However, with media attention, no supportive legislation and the public’s habit of seeing wild animals as cute characters, they are faced with a significant PR challenge.

Given the maelstrom of issues locally in the Forest of Dean and on the wider national stage with regular reports of new populations establishing, many believe that DEFRA should reopen the debate, giving the topic parliamentary time to legislate decisively on British wild boar.

On 10 November Zac Goldsmith MP raised the issue of wild boar classification, minimum cull age, legal minimum calibres and close seasons with DEFRA’s Richard Benyon MP in Parliament.

The infirm response was in line with the ambiguous and vague 2008 Action Plan.

He said that DEFRA considers wild boar living free in parts of England to be feral as they have all come from or are descended from farmstock, and added that DEFRA has no plans to change their legal protection.

Campaigners from all sides of the debate were disappointed with Benyon’s response, as it appears once more that DEFRA has turned its back on the issue.

As DEFRA has now publicly accepted a low density population in the Forestof Dean through their conduit the FC, it is hoped that it will eventually take some proper responsibility for the wild boar free-living in the British countryside.

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