Read the coverage about the wild boar that have made their home in Scotland and you’d be forgiven for thinking the country had become overrun with mutant, dangerous, sheep-eating feral pigs.
According to the Telegraph, they “eat anything” and “attack humans”, and local press in Scotland refers to them as a “farmland pest” that “fights back”. Farming unions have told the BBC that the animals are frequently seen killing and eating sheep, though there has been little evidence of this.
In the UK, a nature-depleted country where one is unlikely to stumble on a wild animal larger than a squirrel in most areas, it is perhaps unsurprising that the appearance of wild pigs has caused so much fear and loathing. But speaking to those in the Highlands, where the populations are, tells a different story.
Boar became extinct in the UK hundreds of years ago as a result of hunting and habitat degradation. Populations have been reestablished, most notably in the Forest of Dean, where they are a draw for nature enthusiasts who particularly enjoy seeing their humbug-striped young – and for hunters.
The creatures were first confirmed to be roaming Scotland in the early 00s, thought to have either escaped from private collections or been deliberately released by guerrilla rewilders.
Now, their population is estimated by some to be about 5,000, and they breed very successfully. This means it is very unlikely they will be eradicated from Scotland’s landscape any time soon.
When a crofter working on Steve Micklewright’s Highlands estate first saw a large, tusked creature looming up out of the dark, he was terrified. But the wild pigs have since been welcomed by Micklewright and his estate workers and tenants, who have found them relatively easy to coexist with.
“We were surprised when they appeared on our estate,” he said, “but we’ve grown to appreciate them.”
He has found them scary. “They can be quite frightening if you come across them. I’ve come across them in enclosed areas and they’ve been fine, they haven’t done anything. But they are quite scary, particularly if they have young. Unless a mother is protecting her young, it is extremely unusual for them to attack. In other parts of Europe it’s just taken for granted that they are out there; there are very few cases where they hurt people.”
Micklewright runs the woodland charity Trees for Life and says he has been pleasantly surprised by the impact the boar have had on his woods. “In woodlands they do an amazing job. They rootle around, they disturb the ground, they make it more diverse and in more of a natural state,” he said.
Though they can cause hassle on agricultural land by digging it up, he said the “cat is out of the bag in Scotland” when it comes to wild boar, so they need to be managed properly and shot under licence if causing nuisance.
“Scotland should bite the bullet on this, recognise them as a native species, give them the protections a native species has, and give those who have a problem with wild boar the ability to manage them properly,” he said. “At the moment, people can just go out and shoot them. They need intelligent management. As time goes on and the population increases, there is a huge opportunity for sustainable hunting. In Italy, for example, there is a whole culture of sustainable boar hunting over there.”
He said they could be enjoyed as a “wild food” and become a Scottish delicacy like venison.
Hugh Raven, who for years has managed estates in Scotland, lives near some wild boar that have recently arrived near his family estate in the Highlands. He said that although he “loves the idea” of having them, policy needs to be developed so there is local consent.
“My own feeling is that they will only survive in Scotland in the long term if there is public consent for them,” he said. “That includes being able to control them if they are causing too much damage. Otherwise, public opinion will be turned against them. There are enough people in Scotland who own and know how to use rifles that the population could easily be exterminated if there is not public consent.”
The lurid warnings about attacks on humans have been overblown, he added. “I have never heard of them hurting anyone but I have heard of someone in the Black Forest in Germany who was chased by a female boar and had to climb up a tree. The idea of them attacking humans is highly improbable. There needs to be a public information campaign as there is a widespread misapprehension about their behaviours.”
Chantal Lyons, an environmental science policy expert who is writing a book on wild boar, has been studying their interactions with humans around the Forest of Dean.
She said boar were less dangerous than many pet dogs. “Wild boar have now been back in the UK for more than 30 years, and we have just two recorded incidents of injury,” she said. The injuries were minor: one was some bruising after being charged by a female sow, and the other was a man who had a fingertip pad bitten off.
It would be good to have boar back more widely, she said, as they are ecosystem engineers that can breathe life back into our woodlands.
“By rooting, boar can break up monocultures like bracken, create more favourable soil conditions, and allow a greater diversity of vegetation to grow. In the Forest of Dean, I sometimes notice oak seedlings growing in old boar rootings, and I wonder if jays have planted them there, because the soil is so good, so easy to plant acorns in.”
Boars will not rampage around eating sheep, she said. “They will certainly eat sheep they find dead, as they are omnivorous and enthusiastic carrion-eaters. However, I think it is extremely unlikely that they have actively killed sheep, which are big animals – I suspect they were already dead. If the sheep-killing was happening with the frequency it appears to from the claims made, you’d think someone would’ve been able to get footage of it by now.”
This article by Helena Horton was first published by The Guardian on 30 December 2022. Lead Image: Boar were first confirmed to be roaming Scotland in the early 00s, and now number about 5,000 across the UK. Photograph: FLPA/Alamy.
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