Editor Pete Carr researches the return to Britain of our only dangerous game animal after an absence of 300 years and looks into the legends of this formidable quarry
The wild boar (Sus scrofa) is, of course, the ancestor of the domestic pig. Although common in mainland Europe, the species became extinct in Great Britain by the 17th century. However, the boar is now back in the UK, having become established from farm stock escapees. It is now believed total eradication of the species in Britain is virtually impossible.
Internationally, the wild boar is recognised as an extremely invasive species. Their numbers have been increasing in many European countries. Typically, feral populations appear to remain low for a number of years before a population explosion. In the UK, it seems feral boar populations may still be in this initial phase.
In Denmark, the last boar was shot at the beginning of the 19th century. Today the Danish government is making great effort, at considerable expense, to stop their return. They are a significant threat to the Danish bacon industry, being vectors of serious pig diseases such as swine fever and tuberculosis.
In the 1970s, the species was first recorded wild in Sweden, after captive animals escaped and became established. The wild boar population in Sweden rose to a massive 80,000 in 2006 and is now estimated to be more than 100,000.
If Sweden is anything to go by then British hunters are in for a lot of sport in the near future. However, it must not be forgotten that this animal can cause massive damage to agriculture as well as to gamekeepers’ livelihoods.
In France and Germany, wild boar are the mainstay quarry species for hunters. The boar population in both countries has also seen a massive surge. This has had a significant impact on many farmers’ incomes. Wounded boar and sows with piglets can be very aggressive, and attacks on people – even fatal attacks – are becoming more frequent.
The probable extinction of wild boar in England by the 13th century was no doubt due to deforestation and sustained hunting pressure. There are later records of the species in England – at Savernake Forest, Wiltshire, in 1539 and 1543 – but these are thought to be failed reintroduction attempts. However, the species was widely distributed on the continent, and throughout the centuries numerous people have tried to bring boar back to Britain for hunting purposes. James I (James VI in Scotland) made notable attempts in 1608 and again in 1611 with animals sourced firstly from France, then Germany. All were introduced into Windsor Great Park, where they survived for some time.
Charles I, following his father, released boar into the New Forest with German stock some time between 1625 and 1649. There was another reintroduction effort at Chartley Park, Stafford, in 1683 towards the end of Charles II’s reign. However, these re-introductions were doomed as the local populace saw them as pests and persecuted them. Between the end of the 17th century and the 1980s, no free-living or feral wild boar had been present in Britain for 300 years.
Captive wild boar in Britain have been kept from the 1970s to provide exotic meat, and a number of animals were also kept in private or public wildlife collections. The main legislative Acts pertaining to keeping wild boar and for protecting the environment from invasive species are the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Dangerous Animals Act 1976 and the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. There are now about 100 wild boar farms in the UK, including 30 or so in Scotland with approximately 2,000 breeding sows.
Sporadic escapes of captive wild boar have occurred since the 1970s. Early escapes occurred from wildlife parks, but severe gales in the late 1980s brought down many fences and a significant number of animals found their freedom from commercial farms. Further escapes occurred in the early 1990s, possibly along with some deliberate releases. By the mid-1990s, breeding populations were already rumoured to be established in southern England.
On 21 October 1998, the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries issued a news release confirming the presence of two populations of free roaming wild boar living in Britain. The wild boar had returned after more than 300 years.
In England, feral wild boar are now present in a number of public forests in Kent, Sussex, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Devon and Dorset. It is estimated that there are between 1,000 and 5,000 wild boar in England. Boar have been spotted during pheasant drives in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and East Somerset – supposedly boar-free areas.
The Forest of Dean and the New Forest populations have received a great deal of media attention over the last few years, and it remains to be seen whether these populations will be allowed to prosper.
Scotland has a rich hunting history. One of the most famous boar hunting stories comes from the dark ages and is centred on Glenshee, where I have pursued red stags, grouse and ptarmigan on many occasions. The earliest recorded reference to Glenshee concerns the legend of Dermid and the Wild Boar. In the Dark Ages Glenshee was renowned for its hunting, and the hunting forest belonged to a local noble named Fingal, whose wife, Grainne, had became infatuated with her own nephew Dermid, a famed warrior.
Hearing of his wife’s infidelity, Fingal ordered Dermid to track and kill a huge wild boar that had been terrorising Glenshee from its home on the slopes of Ben Gulabin. Dermid did so and survived the encounter, but the jealous and enraged Fingal demanded a careful measurement of the huge animal. Dermid walked along the beast’s back, but in doing so he was fatally poisoned by one of the sharp bristles of the razorback’s dorsal mane that had pierced his foot.
Grainne begged her noble husband to send his personal physician to Dermid’s aid, but he refused. Dermid the great warrior passed on to the happy hunting grounds, closely followed by his lover, who in grief flung herself on to an arrow.
It is likely that the wild boar was originally found throughout most of Scotland, wherever there was suitable forest habitat. Populations were reduced over the centuries as the forest cover shrank, and excessive hunting accelerated the species’ disappearance. An exact date for the wild boar’s extinction in Scotland is unknown, but it is generally considered to have been in the late 16th century.
A number of wild boar farms exist in Scotland, and animals that have escaped must account for a boar being photographed roaming free near Fort William in September 2006. This animal was said to be the first boar in at least 400 years that was living wild in Scotland.
There are presently two thriving colonies in Dumfries and Galloway: one in forestry north of Dumfries and the other in forestry to the south-east of Carsphairn, Kirkcudbrightshire. Much of Scotland now has extensive acres of forestry that may prove to be habitable to boar. If we use the Dumfries and Galloway populations as a yardstick, Scottish boar are here to stay.
Wales also has its boar hunting legends, none more so than King Arthur’s famous hunt for a particular large and fearsome boar named Twrch Trwyth.
Culhwch, the Welsh cousin of King Arthur, becomes infatuated with a maiden named Olwen, but he cannot approach her unless he slays and retains the trophy of a particularly potent wild boar named Twrch Trwyth.
Arthur and his knights agree to help Culhwch, and the following fight is some encounter. Chased across Wales, the wounded Twrch Trwyth makes a number of stands, slaying seventeen knights and King Gwilenhin of France during the fray.
Twrch Trwyth then sets loose his children, who massacre many of Arthur’s huntsmen, leading to a counter-attack from Arthur and his allies, who kill the faithful boars in an epic bloodbath. Finally, Arthur’s combined forces drive the doomed boar down the River Severn and into the Irish Sea. His trophy secured, Culhwch gets his girl. The things we do for love – nevertheless, a damn good hunt.
It is uncertain when wild boar finally became extinct in Wales, but what is certain is that they are back. Animals from the Forest of Dean appear to have crossed the River Wye into Monmouthshire to join others that have crossed the marches.
There have been sightings in Staunton, Monmouthshire, where one sounder chased a lady on horseback, and a wild boar was run over at Trellech. Boar have also been spotted at Cledon Bog and Peckett Stone, on the Welsh side of the border.
On present evidence, it appears extinction happened in Neolithic times. The boar were no doubt harried relentlessly by hunters, but the loss of habitat as Neolithic farmers cleared the forest was probably the most significant factor.
In modern-day Ireland, there have been a number of reported sightings in various locations across the country. The most startling of these was a reported 396-pound boar recently shot near a school playground in south Tipperary.
Recent sightings and shootings have confirmed a widespread presence of wild boar in the province of Leinster, which includes the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. These populations began as escapees from farms, or perhaps by deliberate release.
Regular reported sightings of sows, boars and piglets keep coming in from these counties, so it appears this species has now got a firm foot in the door after an absence measured in centuries.