‘Pig!’ I say, slowing the car to a crawl. My father squints into the darkness.
‘Where?’ he asks, and I point to the left, where a large sow is rooting about in the earth.
‘Oh yeah. Big one!’ he says. The sow is imposing, with powerful shoulders, a long snout and beady black eyes. She must easily weigh 60-70kg. It would be daunting if we weren’t in a car. I stop the car completely to look for others, and soon we spot a group of smaller pigs rooting at the edge of woods. We sit and watch them in the headlights for a while.
I forget exactly when wild boar became a thing in the Forest of Dean. They certainly weren’t about when I was a kid. Boar were something you saw in Asterix cartoons, history books and films, usually on some medieval lord’s dinner table. The period free-roaming boar became extinct in Britain is disputed, but it’s commonly thought to be over 300 years ago.
In the past few decades breeding populations have re-emerged after farmed animals escaped or were illegally introduced into the wild. The Forest of Dean has the largest of these groups, and a recent thermal imaging study estimated Forest boar numbers to be above 1,000 animals.
Boar population numbers have doubled in the Forest since 2013, despite regular culling, a matter that has caused controversy with animal rights supporters. A local group called Friends of the Boar have criticised the Forestry Commission’s culling practices and PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk auctioned a family heirloom to raise money for anti-culling activists.
The current population greatly exceeds the Forestry Commission’s target population of 400. A succession of mild winters, combined with a lack of natural predators, means the boar are able to thrive and reproduce rapidly. Sows have litters of around 6 piglets and are often able to produce more than one litter a year. The danger of unchecked boar populations are apparent in Poland, where numbers have exceeded 300,000 and boar have become a common pest in city suburbs, where they root through rubbish bins.
Photo credit: iStock
The boar are a polarising local issue. One animal rights campaigner referred to them as “a Marmite animal, people either love them or hate them”. To an extent they’ve become part of the local identity. Murals painted for the HOOF (‘Hands Off Our Forest’) campaign feature boar alongside other local animals. The pigs are also a tourist attraction, featured in guidebooks, websites and postcards. Wild boar meat – leaner and gamier than pork – is popular in butchers.
To locals, the pigs are more of a double-edged sword. They pose a hazard on the roads – a Wiltshire man died in early 2015 from a boar collision on the M4 – and their rooting behaviour causes a lot of damage to grasslands and communal areas. My local cricket club, Yorkley Star Cricket Club, was forced to close recently due to boar damage. It had previously been going for 130 years.
Though the boar are nocturnal and afraid of humans for the most part, many people have safety concerns. Sows exhibit defensive behaviours to protect their young, such as snorting and mock ‘charging’, but there have been no specific reports human harm from these charges. A DEFRA report concluded that: “Given their widespread distribution and substantial populations throughout much of their range, the risk of injury and attack is very small.” There have, however, been reports of dogs being attacked, and the Forestry Commission advises walkers to put their dogs on leads.
Whether you love or hate the boar, it looks like they’re here to stay. Drive safely.
Sam Swannack is a native of the Forest of Dean and occasional pig (especially if there’s ice cream in the freezer)