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Great Boars of Today

Great Boars of Today

This is the original version of a piece published in the Observer Magazine on 4th March 2012

As wild boar have returned to Britain, our attitudes to them have grown increasingly capricious. Bella Bathurst investigates.

Bella Bathurst - Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnson, wild boar farmer in Perthshire ©Bella Bathurst

There have been storms recently in Scotland, so at first the January drive up the stone road to Bamff House seems normal. Beyond the little lodge are signs of fresh damage – a big broken-backed Douglas Fir, a scattering of spruces, the marks of chainsaws. A little further on past a stand of rhodedendrons are ponds loaded with trunks, their limbs silhouetted on the ice, and rounding the final corner there’s another scattering of new tree stumps. But these ones haven’t been razored by saws; they’re rounded off to a pencil point. And they’re all covered in fresh tooth marks. Tooth marks? Blimey, I think, and brake. That’s not gales. That’s beaver.

I didn’t come here looking for beaver, I came here to find wild boar. But Paul and Louise Ramsay who own the 13,000-acre Bamff estate in Perthshire have spent the last decade staking their reputation on a one-family environmental and wildlife regeneration scheme which currently includes both species. Many centuries ago, beaver and boar were native to Scotland. And so back in 2002, two Norwegian beaver were released on the estate, followed a few months later by six wild boar.

Both species liked what they saw. And since both also had very specific exterior design requirements, they immediately embarked on an ambitious relandscaping plan for Bamff. Boars – the rotavators of the natural world – generally favour a Somme-style ambience, while beavers, whose hobbies include heavy engineering, dam-building, large-scale forestry operations and novelty woodwork, prefer a really large stage on which to work. In the decade since they arrived, both species have worked hard to convert large sections of the estate back from 18th Century parkland into late Pleistocene swamp.

Great Boars - First

©Bella Bathurst

In gardening terms, their efforts are an acquired taste. Just beside the track is a mossy old birch tree. Its trunk has been bitten three-quarters of the way through; only luck and lack of wind have stopped it toppling over onto whatever might happen to be beneath at the time. ‘Do you like it?’ asks Louise as we walk past three vast new water features and a plantation of birch saplings interestingly re-imagined as lunch. Well, I say, it’s certainly got drama. As their daughter Sophie puts it,

“It’s sort of like Jurassic Park, isn’t it?”

But Bamff’s example also provides the sharpest possible illustration of the issues involved in reintroducing species to the wild. Beaver and boar were hunted to extinction in Britain over 400 years ago, though elsewhere both continue to thrive; three quarters of a million boar are culled every year in mainland Europe. In many areas, boars have become a public menace – in Berlin alone, 2,000 are killed every year. Like foxes, they’ve realised that there are excellent pickings to be had from the bins of urban Germans. But unlike foxes, boar also have a habit of smashing through shop windows, rooting up football pitches or trashing cemeteries.

Back in the mid 1970s, a few farmers in southern England began importing wild boar from Eastern Europe to farm for meat. After a while, some of those boar escaped. They in their turn were joined by boar dumped by illegal importers, set free by animal rights activists or released by hunters for sport. By the Millennium they were flourishing, particularly in areas like the Forest of Dean which offered ideal conditions: rich deciduous woodland, plenty of interesting agricultural land nearby, the occasional bin to raid.

For a while nothing was done, and while nothing was done, the boar settled in. Separate breeding populations established themselves in Kent, Sussex, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Scotland. Their fans cited their charm and their regenerative effect on the soil. Their detractors pointed to the havoc they could cause and their enthusiasm for reproduction: a mature sow can produce two litters of between six and sixteen piglets a year.

Now, having established themselves, the wild boar find themselves accused of everything short of satanism and cross-dressing. Farmers complain of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage done to crops, fences flattened, maize laid waste. Walkers say they live in fear of boars attacking themselves or their dogs. Homeowners have their lawns rearranged and their gardens destroyed. And Foresters fear what inevitably comes with boar: poachers, hunters and men with guns.

So what exactly is it going to be? Is it realistic to bring back an animal that hasn’t lived in Britain since Henry VIII was prancing around in pink tights? Are boars better managed by Defra and the Forestry Commission, or by private landowners with high ideals and land to spare?

Should they be hunted, should they be farmed, and can they ever just be left to get on with being themselves? And what exactly do we want boar for?

Since a full-grown sow can weigh over 150 kg, they can be an intimidating presence, even if no wild boar will attack humans unless provoked. Most domestic pigs, bred and interbred over centuries, end up looking like office furniture. But a wild boar looks more or less like a pig ought to look. They’ve retained their original shape – rounded back, sticky-up ears, long delicate legs – as well as much of their individuality and their intelligence. A mature sow is front-loaded, all power in the head and chest, a miniature Picasso bull.

Defra and the Forestry Commission spent three years producing an ‘action plan’ which established that the boar were in fact wild boar rather than pigs in fur coats and laid the responsibility for dealing with them on local communities and landowners. Defra also maintained their classification as dangerous wild animals, a category which also includes Tasmanian Devils, death adders and Brazilian wolf spiders. That classification means that owners must hold a licence for wild boar, and that owners or farmers can be prosecuted for boar which escape.

Bella Bathurst - Hilton wild boar piglets

©Bella Bathurst

In the Forest of Dean, a cull was introduced – 30 boar the first year, 60 the second, 122 in 2011. The only trouble is that no-one, not the Forestry Commission, not Defra, not the scientists or the experts, have any idea how many boar are actually out there. Despite the use of increasingly sophisticated military thermal imaging equipment, no-one has yet managed a definitive count. Talk to the landowners and the hunters, and there’s a boar bristling behind every shrub. Talk to the Foresters, and there’s no more than an oppressed handful remaining.

Either way, the boar certainly maintain a conspicuous physical presence. Foresters describe watching families of boar rooting through ground that had been snowed over and deep-frozen for several days, overturning the hard earth with their snouts as easily as if it was sand. Josh Theobald, head keeper on the Lydney estate, has seen the boar at work. ‘If they find something they like, they hammer hell out of it, snuffling and rooting, knocking up turf. Their nose looks soft, but they’re hellish strong. They’ll eat anything, pretty much. I’ve shot one three years ago and while I was trying to shoot it, it ate some some corn out of a feed-hopper, a squirrel out of a trap – ripped that out and ate the back end – and when I actually shot it it was pulling up a tree root. I mean, they’re impressive.’

The one I shot, it was huge, eight and a half foot long hung up, so I’m just over six foot and when I was stood up, its toes was the height of my fingers and its nose was on the floor. It took four of us to lift it into a truck. There’s a layer of fat about two inches thick all over, and when you shoot them it’s a bit like shooting a concrete block – they are solid.’ And it’s good meat?

Oh, very good meat. I mean, everything we shoot, people are crying out for it.”

Anything that Josh shoots gets tested for TB and trichinella worm and certified by Defra before being sold on through a game dealer. But others are not so scrupulous. With the increase in interest in the boars comes a corresponding increase in poaching. Pepi Barrington, who breeds Irish Water Spaniels in the Forest, is constantly aware of their presence. ‘The number of boar have definitely gone down. That’s not because of the Forestry Commission, it’s because of poachers. There’s been been so much publicity with Autumnwatch and Springwatch and all these TV programmes, poachers come from far and wide – there’s a lot of money in boar meat, I believe.’

Barrington is as alarmed by poachers running around with guns and dogs than by the boar themselves. ‘Absolutely. Poaching is a major problem in the Dean. The FC and the police don’t do anything about it. I can guarantee it, there will be poachers out tonight. I see the lights and the tyre tracks. The police know who they are and they won’t do anything. Their resources are tight and unless it involves someone being injured, poaching is not high on their list of priorities.’ The poaching isn’t old-style stealing for the pot; it’s large-scale indiscriminate killing to order, and the poachers aren’t picky. They take all sizes and ages, including lactating females or fresh roadkill. Boars killed in traffic accidents often have a habit of vanishing before anyone official gets there. They’ll be cut up and sold on to restaurants or individuals faster than anyone can keep tabs on.

Bella Bathurst - beaver dam

Beaver tracks, Bamff ©Bella Bathurst

The problem,’ thinks Barrington, ‘Is that the local community is so divided – some people think they’re wonderful and that it’s a great privilege to see this animal that was hunted to extinction back in the forest, but those people who actually use the forest find them quite dangerous.’ Two of her dogs were attacked a couple of years ago while they were out walking, though both have subsequently recovered. ‘Poor Marmite took the full brunt – this boar just shot past me towards the dogs. Marmite ran off, but when she turned round to look at me, the boar got her. I don’t know whether he got her with his tusks or bit her but she had a huge chunk out of her rear end. It was horrendous.’ She now puts bells on the collars of all her dogs so a walk in the woods below her house sounds like a stroll with a flock of alpine goats.

This then is the reason that wild boar have been tolerated for so long in mainland Europe; not because they’re likeable – they are – but because they’re tasty. Back in Scotland and an hour down the road from Bamff, Andrew Johnston has been farming wild boar commercially for 17 years. On a hillside just outside Perth he has 40 breeding sows providing a steady supply of meat for the domestic market. A decade ago, eating wild boar was a novelty; now it’s part of our rising appetite for game. The taste is not what you expect – not rich and porky, but lean and very flavoursome, almost like venison. In Johnston’s view, the British are getting a taste for wild boar. ‘There is a demand,’ he says,

“But it’s specific. Mostly it’s repeat customers who come to the farmers’ market week in, week out. They want something better than normal pork, something more interesting and exceptional.”

It was one of his boars, McQueen, which in 2002 escaped from a holding pen at the local abbatoir, swam the Tay river, scampered across Dunblane golf-course and, despite a full-scale hunt involving the emergency services, an armed response team and a televised plea for McQueen’s life by the actors Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove (‘this pig wants to live’) evaded his captors and fled into the Highlands. ‘I’m not sure where he ended up,’ says Johnston. ‘Probably in someone’s freezer.’

Bella Bathurst - Josh Theobald

©Bella Bathurst

What does he think of the boar? ‘I like them. Of course. I like their company and I have few enough that I can get to know them individually – whether they’re grumpy, whether they like to be photographed, whether they’ll be good with the kids. I’m not soppy – there’s no names or anything, but I do get to know them. I couldn’t do this without having a bit of a passion for it – it doesn’t generate a huge income.’

Up in Bamff, the Ramsays are also farming their boar. When Paul first decided to introduce boar a decade ago, ‘I understood that I was getting three gilts – virgin females, I suppose you’d say. And then it turned out that far from being three gilts, there were six of them, three females, two males, and an intersex.’ Intersex? ‘Yes.’ Hermaphrodite? ‘Well, yes. It was slightly awkward, because this boar, which definitely thought of itself as the alpha male, would knock the other chaps off the job, and then of course he couldn’t serve the females himself.’ He didn’t have the equipment?

He didn’t have the equipment. He was also rather aggressive, so he got shot.”

Louise has been impressed by the boars’ intelligence. ‘One rutting season (in November*), our old boar decided he was going to visit all his wives. So he just lifted the gate off its hinges and quietly removed himself from the enclosure. He was a very dignified old creature, and you would pass him on the drive he’d just walk past you with this, ‘oh, hello,’ expression. Sheep when they’re not in their enclosure look very guilty and rush off, but he wasn’t like that, he was just, ‘oh, hi.’

Bella Bathurst - Hilton wild boar

©Bella Bathurst

So what do the boars make of the beavers? ‘The boars love what the beavers do because they love to wallow, so they love wet muddy places.’ Despite this display of ecological harmony, both boar and beaver are under threat. ‘Just over a year ago in November 2010 we learned that SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) intended to trap and remove all the wild beavers (in Scotland),’ says Louise. ‘We thought, no, that’s a daft idea because they’re a native species, they do a huge amount of good, and also, while they’re pretending to have a trial reintroduction in Argyll, there are so many dark forces moving against it. So I started a campaign called ‘Save the Free Beavers of the Tay’ on Facebook.’ I laugh. Lots of people would happily join a campaign called Save the Free Beaver, I say. ‘Yes,’ says Paul, ‘We did get quite a lot of people. Not all of them were interested in animals.’

It’s hard not to root for the boar. They’ve done nothing more or less than behave as boar are supposed to behave, but they’ve found themselves staring down the wrong end of our bipolarity towards wildness. It’s us – photographers, dog-walkers, hunters, poachers, landowners and experts – whose behaviour has been divided and erratic.

So what kind of Pandora’s Box have we opened? Can any reintroduced wild species really hope to coexist with a world full of agribusiness, mobile phone masts and 4x4s? Where, in this crowded island, is there a space for the boar? And besides, what exactly do we want them for? Like it or not, all of these questions are all here to stay.