From 5,000BC to the present day, boar expert and hunter Steve Sweeting recounts the history and development of Sus scrofa in England
Whether it happened overnight in a cataclysmic explosion, or over decades, possibly centuries, through gradual erosion, the narrow strip of land connecting what is now mainland Europe with Great Britain ceased to exist around 7,000 years ago. Either way, it was an end to traffic passing over the connecting land bridge, but the way it ended would have had a very different impact on the fauna, flora and human population of the day.
In the case of an apocalyptic collapse it would have meant an immediate stop to land based animals migrating between the two land masses, with many casualties in the process. On the other hand, slow erosion would have meant that the diminishing isthmus would have gradually made travel more treacherous with each passing year. As the solid ground gave way to salty marshes, many smaller creatures would have had their journey terminated at the edge of the boggy ground. Larger animals such as bison, elk, deer, wild boar and the small migrant population of human beings would have continued to wade across until even they were stopped by the reclamation of terra firma by the sea.
Human beings of that period had not really changed much for 100,000 years and looked pretty much the same as people do today, only with less expensive haircuts.
During the Mesolithic age the human race eked out a living by subsisting on fruit, nuts, berries, leaves and of course hunting; this was the time of the hunter-gatherer. These Middle Stone Age inhabitants of Britain had already learned the importance of management in hunting by making sure that their quarry was not over exploited. Dr Francis Pryor, in an overview of his book From Neolithic to Bronze Age refers to evidence that they even enticed wild boar and deer to come to water holes and woodland clearings by laying down food – a first step towards farming.
But farming quickly advanced, and there was a lot more to it than simply planting a few seeds and waiting for them to grow. Whereas hunters would blend in to the landscape unnoticed, farmers would change it beyond all recognition. Instead of following the herds of deer and wild boar they settled in convenient and fertile areas and learned to plough whole tracts of land that were first cleared of trees and then sown with primitive food crops. Early settlers would have brought with them the ancestors of sheep, cattle and goats from mainland Europe, and farmers began breeding domestic pigs from the wild boar that flourished in the British woodlands.
At around 500 BC the Celts began to arrive from central Europe, and their cultural and spiritual link to the wild boar is well documented. They saw it largely as a male totem, not only representing fierceness and bravery in battle, but also a symbol of masculinity and sexual prowess. The sow too was seen as an emblem of fertility, abundance and prosperity. In Celtic tradition the animal’s magic was all-powerful and talisman, amulets and charms were made out of boar’s tusks for protection and good luck.
The Celts realised that the boar, even with its sharp tusks and ferocious nature, was a shy animal that preferred to avoid human contact; only living up to this reputation when cornered or forced to defend itself or its litter against attack.
Everything changed in 1066, when when William I defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Thus began the early medieval age, the age of the nobility and of hunting. Forests were designed as hunting areas reserved for the monarchs and their guests. The concept was introduced by the Normans to England in the 11th century and was continued by subsequent monarchs until, at the height of this practice in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, one-third of southern England was designated as royal forest. At one stage in the 12th century, all of Essex was a royal hunting forest.
William the Conqueror and his sons were notorious in their devotion to hunting. The compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that William: “Preserved the harts and boars and loved the stags as much as if he were their father.”
Hunting was viewed as “an essential mark of a gentleman and was valued as a test of courage, strength, and agility.” Later, it became a main ‘pastyme’ of the Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VIII. It was said that when he first came to the throne in 1509, finally out from under the strict eye of his father, Henry was “a youngling who cares for nothing but girls and hunting.”
Once, while hunting a wild boar, Henry came face to face with death, or at least severe injury, when a wild boar turned on him. Only a quick-acting peasant girl who shot the beast down with her bow and arrow saved him.
It is difficult to put a date on when wild boar actually ceased to roam freely in Britain because throughout history there have been attempts to re-introduce them. It is likely, however, that most of the boar that Henry VIII hunted would have been animals that had been brought over from France and put into royal parks and forests. Truly free-ranging wild boar, ones that had their ancestral line originating from this country, may have become extinct in Great Britain as early as the 13th century. After this date they were kept for game and status in private parks, after importing them in from France and Germany.
There seem to have been a number of attempts at re-introduction between the 13th and 17th centuries; we know that James I of England (VI of Scotland) tried this twice in Windsor Park. The main reason for their demise seems to have been largely because of widespread deforestation, especially during the reign of Elizabeth I, and intensive hunting. Between the 17th century and the 1980s there were no wild boar, native or introduced, in Britain apart from a handful that may have been kept as exhibits in zoos.
Since the pig farming boom in the 1980s, there have been a number of escapes that have led to several feral populations becoming established throughout the UK.
According to DEFRA, in a study carried out by Wilson et al in 2006, there are three significant populations that have established themselves in England.
The largest group that was studied at that time was in Kent/East Sussex and it was estimated that there were approximately 200 animals. Another group in West Dorset was estimated at being fewer than 50 animals, while the population in the third area of the Wye valley/Forest of Dean appeared to fluctuate between less than 30 to more than 50 animals. The reason for the fluctuation was thought to be due to a hard cull followed by compensatory reproduction.
In my opinion it is about as difficult to estimate the number of wild boar on a home range as it is to estimate the number of roe deer in a given area. Most informed opinions, I believe, would agree that it is a challenging task to perform – unless you have at your disposal military aircraft with sophisticated search equipment on board. One difficult arises from the fact that it is rather similar to quantum physics where the act of observation will influence the outcome.
Although I am a strong advocate of allowing wild boar to re-establish themselves as an indigenous species, I do of course realise that if this were to happen it may have implications that need to be thought out carefully and control measures put in place. It has been at least 300 years since wild boars have inhabited our countryside and many things, not least of which the human population itself, have changed in that time. The impact of re-introduction may therefore have uncertain repercussions. Unlike in America where the state owns the wildlife, in the UK wild animals belong to no one, and it is unclear whether the presence of a potentially dangerous wild animal on land might render landowners liable in some circumstances.
There are many concerns with the concept of allowing wild boars to roam free in the countryside in the 21st century. One realistic opinion is that because of the low age at which wild boars are able to reproduce, the species would become widespread relatively quickly. Added to this, they have relatively large litters and no natural predators in Britain. Clearly some form of control would need to be put in place to address these issues, quite likely in some areas more than others. Certainly if these populations are allowed to develop, legislation must be revised to formalise the legal requirements covering use of firearms. This would mean the insistence of a minimum calibre as well as well-defined shooting seasons; all this of course would require new legislation to be put in place.
DEFRA carried out two risk assessments in 2007, one was concerned with the spread of disease in livestock and the other was on risks to biodiversity, agricultural damage and human health and safety. Again I believe that the authorities are perfectly correct in assessing the potential risks involved in allowing a re-introduced animal to roam unchecked.
The findings of the report were in fact that the risk was actually very low, which then gives support to the many people like me who would welcome a return of these magnificent animals to the British Isles.
Get the entirety of Steve’s wisdom on wild boar, from their origins through to hunting equipment, tactics and even recipes, in the new book Wild Boar: A British Perspective.