As the animals have re-emerged, our attitude to them has grown increasingly capricious. People now living cheek by jowl with these 150kg barrels of muscle and hair tell their stories
Walking through the forest, you become aware of another presence. For a while there’s nothing there but birdsong and the odd drone of a distant plane. But in the occasional silences it becomes evident that something – several things – have been here before you. Every few yards, the earth has been gouged up and pushed aside, the leaves freshly dishevelled. At the base of the beech trees are long, raking scratches where some creature has ripped over the topsoil, looking for something beneath. Bluebell roots lie scribbled against the earth where they’ve been pulled up and cut through, and around the base of the larger trees are deep, pale craters, as if the forest had recently been surprised by a shower of small meteorites.
The animals responsible for all this re-arrangement have long gone. They’re nocturnal and nomadic, and their recent notoriety has made them shyer than usual. By day they retreat into the secret parts of the Forest of Dean and by night they move from place to place, rooting their way to subterranean treasure and – just as likely – an early grave.
It isn’t easy being a wild boar in Britain these days. Having been deliberately reintroduced a couple of decades ago, they’ve found themselves staring down the wrong end of our conflicting attitudes towards wildness. We wanted them because they once belonged here. We didn’t want them because they’re disruptive and piggish. We like them because they’re charming and tasty. We don’t like them because they’re untidy. We’re keen to take their picture, but we’d prefer them dead.
Now, having settled in nicely, the wild boars find themselves accused of everything short of satanism. Walkers say they live in fear of boars attacking them or their dogs. Farmers complain of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage done to crops, fences flattened, maize laid waste. Homeowners have their lawns dug up and their gardens destroyed. And many people fear what inevitably follows the boar: the poachers and the men with guns.
Is it realistic to bring back an animal that hasn’t lived in Britain since Henry VIII was out hunting? 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?
The beaver and the boar were both hunted to extinction in Britain more than 400 years ago, though elsewhere they continue to thrive – 750,000 boar are killed each year in mainland Europe. In many areas, they have become a public menace: the city of Berlin culls 2,000 “feral” boars annually. Like foxes, boars have realised that there are excellent pickings to be had from the bins of urban Germans. Unlike foxes, they also have a habit of smashing through shop windows, rooting up football pitches or trashing cemetery grounds.