Wild Boar in Britain - Extinction and Return



Wild boar in the Forest of Dean

Wild boar in the Forest of Dean (© Rob Albrow).

"My partner and I were cycling in the Forest of Dean, we sat down tohave a rest and drink, as it was a very warm day.I head a rustling and crashing about from the trees to my right, next thingwe see is two wild boar appearing from the wood, onto the path we wereresting on! Then while we sat and watched the whole herd arrived with lots of young. We didn't feel threatened by theboar, although some of them did come very close.There was one female who appeared to be quite aggresive to other members ofthe herd, she did come quite close to us and had a good long stare, thenmoved away. We feel quite privileged to have been so close to so many wild boar at onetime."
- Rob Albrow, June 2005.

The extinction of wild boar in Britain.

        The date at which wild boar finally became extinct in Britain is unclear due to subsequent attempts at re-introduction. In continental Europe, wild boar were (and still are) widely distributed and attempts were made in the 18th and 19th centuries to re-introduce animals to Britain from abroad, initially into private estates for hunting purposes. James 1st released animals firstly from France and then from Germany into Windsor Park in 1608 and 1611 respectively. His son, Charles 1st (reigned 1625-1649), also released boar into the New Forest from Germany. These re-introductions were not successful in the long term as the majority of people regarded wild boar as [agricultural] pests and saw to their destruction.

It is thought that the original British wild boar were probably extinct by the 13th century, and the re-introduced animals became extinct during the 17th century. Between the 17th century and the 1980's, when wild boar farming began, only a handful of captive wild boar, imported from the continent as zoo exhibits, were present in Britain. Until very recently, no free-living wild boar (native or introduced) have been present in Britain for the last 300 years.

Captive wild boar in Britain.

         Captive wild boar in Britain are kept in private or public wildlife collections, in zoos and on farms. The main legislative Acts pertinent to the keeping of exotic animals (including wild boar), and for the protection of the environment from invasive species, are the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Dangerous Animals Act 1976 and the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

The original U.K. wild boar farm stock was predominantly of French origin, but the industry expanded and from 1987 farmers have supplemented the original stock with animals of both west European and east European origin. The east European animals were imported from farm stock in Sweden because Sweden, unlike eastern Europe, has a similar health status for pigs to that of Britain. Currently there is no central register listing all the wild boar farms in the UK, the total number of wild boar farms is unknown.

Since wild boar are covered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, as amended in 1984, certain legal requirements have to be met prior to commencing a farming operation. A licence to keep the animals has to be obtained from the local Council who will appoint a veterinarian to inspect the premises and report on their suitability for housing the animals. Requirements include secure accommodation and fencing, correct drainage, temperature, lighting, hygiene, ventilation and liability insurance.

Sporadic escapes of captive wild boar have occurred since the 1970's. Early escapes occurred from Wildlife Parks but since the early 1990's more escapes have occurred from farms as wild boar farming has increased in popularity. By the mid 1990's a breeding population was rumoured to have established in areas of Kent and East Sussex.

The return of wild boar in Britain.

        On the 21st October 1998 DEFRA (then known as MAFF) issued a News Release concerning the results of their study on wild boar living free in Britain. The study confirmed the presence of two populations of wild boar living in Britain - The wild boar had returned! The Defra report that describes the official investigation can be downloaded from here as a PDF file 'Current Status and Potential Impact of Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) in the English Countryside: A Risk Assessment'

Because wild boar are a former native species, the British climate will not adversely affect the survival of the free-living animals, particularly as wild boar can survive a wide range of climatic conditions, including deep winter snowfalls.

wild boar in snow

   Wild boar in Forest of Dean snow (© Ben Locke)
wild boar in snow

   Wild boar in Forest of Dean snow (© Ben Locke)
wild boar in Polish snow

   ...and for comparison, a wild boar in Polish snow

The relatively mild and wet UK climate should favour the wild boars' survival. Furthermore, the fact that the populations are breeding implies not only a viable population (as opposed to the population having arisen from numerous isolated escapes) but also that sufficient food resources and suitable habitat are available.

Wild boar are commonly referred to as a woodland species. However, wild boar will utilise a mosaic of habitats, for example deciduous woodland, coniferous woodland, scrubland and agricultural land. Thereforethe assumption that wild boar are dependent on single large blocks of woodland to survive is incorrect.

East Sussex

Wild boar territory on the Kent and East Sussex border. The fragmented habitat of woodland and agricultural land is perfect for the wild boars' needs. (© Martin Goulding).




The Dean


Similarly, wild boar territory in fragmented habitat around the Forest of Dean. (© Martin Goulding).



The main threat to the long-term survival of the returned boar appears to be hunting pressure. The fact that the animals are being shot year round and that pregnant/lactating sows are being shot suggests that hunting pressure is affecting population growth. However, whether hunting is actually reducing the population, or only slowing down population growth, is unknown. The tendency of the wild boar to feed on agricultural crops continually puts them in confrontation with the farming and hunting communities.

Conditions in Britain should fulfill the major ecological requirements of wild boar and, all things being equal, enable the population to increase and expand. However, uncontrolled hunting could halt or reverse population growth.

Controversy

        Wild boar court controversy because they impact on many areas, particularly agriculture, animal health, conservation and public safety. For example, they cause agricultural damage, have the potential to pass on disease to domestic livestock and can be dangerous if cornered. On the other hand they were a native species and an integral part of the ecology of the woodland. Their rooting activities mixes soil nutrients and increases the diversity of plant species, which in turn benefits the insects which rely on the plants and so on up the food chain.

At present, there are both positive aspects to the species' return (recreational hunting, food source) and negative aspects (crop damage, road traffic accidents).

Wild boar rooting


Caught in the act! Wild boar in Gloucestershire ravaging pasture land, much to the farmer's displeasure (photo reproduced with permission).

Ecological implications

        The effect of wild boar on woodland ecology is complex and has still to be fully determined. Rooting through the surface layers causes a disturbance regime that favours some species but not others. The intensity of rooting is likely to vary from year to year due to fluctuating boar numbers and natural food supply. Wild boar are a former native species of the UK, so our woodland ecology would have evolved in conjunction with wild boar. For this reason, wild boar may not be expected to significantly alter the ecology. Alternatively, one could argue that since wild boar have been absent from most woodlands for at least 700 years, woodland habitats may have evolved and stabilised in their absence.

As regards flora, the short and long term effects of rooting on a woodlands floral ecology are unknown, although, in Sweden, the accidentally re-introduced wild boar population is reported to have increased species diversity. It is also difficult to predict the effect that the wild boars' presence will have on woodland fauna. Wild boar diet is predominantly vegetarian but can include insects, larvae, eggs, nestlings, small mammals and carrion.

The wild boars' main influence, however, may be as a food competitor, particularly with species that rely on acorns in their diet, for example jays Garrulus glandarius, squirrels Sciurus sp. and small rodents. It has been suggested that wild boar will deliberately seek out wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus burrows, not to predate the wood mice but to purloin their acorn hoards.

Discovering how wild boar and badgers Meles meles co-exist would be of particular interest. Both animals have a similar diet, are opportunistic, omnivorous, root through leaf litter and are predominantly nocturnal. They share one other trait of importance to the agricultural industry, namely, that both carry bovine tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis.

Wild boar sow with piglets


Wild boar sow with piglets amongst the bracken and bluebells in an East Sussex woodland (© Martin Goulding).

House of Commons

        Several questions about the free-living wild boar have been asked in the House of Commons! To view all the boar questions asked in the 'House', use this link to the parliament database. Type 'wild boar' in the 'exact phrase' field and hit the grey coloured 'search' button.

Wild boar in an East Sussex woodland


Young wild boar feeding in woodland on the Kent/East Sussex border. (© Martin Goulding).



        Do you think the return of the wild boar is a good thing ? - Visit You are the Judge

Top of page