Wild Boar were once widespread throughout the country, but became extinct in the wild some time during the 13th century. Hunting was responsible for their eventual demise. In more recent years, Wild Boar were increasingly imported from European stock to be farmed under license. It is these boar that are the ancestors of the wild population living in the Forest of Dean today, through a combination of escape and deliberate release. The Forest of Dean is not unique in being home to Wild Boar in Britain, nor was it the first place for them to repopulate, as Kent, Sussex and Dorset host marginally older populations, whilst further small populations have continued to emerge all around Britain.
The reintroduction of Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean has proven divisive amongst the residents and businesses of the forest. Perhaps it is this notoriety that has resulted in the Dean population becoming perhaps the most well known on a national level. Many welcome their return, recognising that although their presence isn’t the result of a formal reintroduction strategy, the result is the same – a native species has returned to its former range, bringing with it a valuable contribution to the ecology and biodiversity of the forest. Conversely, many oppose the return of the boar, primarily citing damage and public safety concerns as their reasons. Interestingly, some of the most vocal contributors to both sides of the debate seem to have relatively little interest in wider aspects of natural history – the species seems to have the ability to inspire passion in people who are otherwise content to not notice the majority of the rest of the natural inhabitants of the forest.
The size of the population in the Dean has been hard to define, due to the characteristics of both the boars’ behaviour and their habitat, though attempts are often made. The population has a high propensity to fluctuate as the rate of breeding is highly dependent on the harvest of food produced by the forest each year. The majority of young will be born in the spring, with a smaller peak in the autumn, but piglets have been observed in all months of the year. An individual sow will only tend to produce one litter a year. There’s no doubt that Wild Boar provide a valuable service to the ecology of the forest, excavating and dispersing dormant seeds, aerating the forest floor, and increasing the biodiversity of the woods. Perhaps one of the main benefits they provide is reducing the bracken under-storey by feeding on rhizomes, allowing more light to reach the forest floor, thus promoting new growth of species unable to compete with the fast growing bracken. Whilst they don’t damage the woodland in the same way that deer species can do, and although their breeding rates are naturally managed to a degree by food availability, there’s certainly a possibility that if left unmanaged, a ‘tipping point’ could be reached, and an adverse effect could be experienced by other species in the forest (e.g flora, ground-nesting birds). Perhaps a more likely scenario is that before the population could reach such a stage, more boar would disperse from the forest on to agricultural land, where they would be equally comfortable, but where they would no doubt soon meet an untimely end. A lack of natural predation of the Wild Boar means that the Forestry Commission carry out a cull in an attempt to cap the population.
Evidence of the presence of Wild Boar is easy to find throughout virtually all areas of the forest. At certain times of the year, the forest floor will show signs of rooting by the boar, in search of food – perhaps the most obvious field sign. Wallows can be found all over the forest – regularly used to cool down and remove parasites, usually with a convenient tree nearby, which the animals will use to rub against. In addition to the tell-tale mud on the trunk, these trees will often exhibit territorial markings in the form of notches, carved in to their trunks by the tusks of male boar.
Wild Boar are largely nocturnal creatures. Much of the daytime will be spent in the cover of dense, young conifer plantations, or in the summer under the shade of a tree or nestled within tall bracken. Daytime excursions are more frequent when young boar are present, due to the constant demands for feeding and the need for the parent sows to keep well fed. Nocturnal by nature, it is at dawn or dusk that boar are most likely to be seen, when they will leave their cover in search of food amongst the deciduous woodland, foraging for acorns, chestnuts, bracken rhizomes, beech mast, invertebrates, even carrion. For such large mammals they possess an impressive ability to go unnoticed, but will often betray their presence by the sound of leaf litter being shovelled away as they dig the forest floor, or by the squeal of a wayward piglet, often quickly followed by an admonishing grunt from their mother.
The domesticated heritage of the Forest of Dean’s Wild Boar is clear – they descend from farmed stocks. As such, the original boar would have been used to being fed in the daytime by their keepers, and would have had no inherent fear of man. Their behaviour in the wild did not necessarily correlate with the species blueprint. Over successive generations however, there has been a clear tendency towards reverting to their wilder characteristics, but certain individuals and groups have still demonstrated a tendency to quickly become tolerant of, or even welcoming of, human contact – something that is exploited by some photographers. Some of these boar have attracted much media coverage in the past. This has usually occurred as a result of irresponsible, but usually entirely innocent, encouragement from people. For better or for worse, what with the rise and fall of industrialisation of the Forest of Dean, and the subsequent growth and continuation of the tourism and leisure industry, the home of the Wild Boar has changed significantly since it last lived here. The people and the boar of the Forest of Dean are still learning to co-exist.
Wild Boar are social creatures, and tend to move about in transient matriarchal groups. Collectively known as sounders, a group of boar will typically consist of at least one sow and her offspring, but frequently a small group of sows will collaborate with parental duties, leading to impressively sized groups. Male boar are larger than the females, and have tusks that, once sufficiently mature, can grow large enough to become permanently visible, protruding from under the upper lip. Such individuals are rarely observed in the Dean, as their natural lifespan isn’t normally fulfilled, but occasionally one may be privileged to meet such a beast! Males are much more solitary creatures, though they will socialise with other males at times outside of the breeding season, and are generally harder to find. Their rutting season often correlates with the timing of the Fallow Deer rut. At this time, male boar are much more territorial and aggressive. Their testosterone fuelled urge to mate is often evidenced by frothy spittle forming around the mouth, and the apparent loss of their otherwise inherent shyness – whilst it is possible to responsibly observe the boar of the Forest of Dean, a male boar in rut is best avoided!
Whilst there is no single location that can be guaranteed to produce sightings of Wild Boar with any degree of consistency, there are a number of steps that can be taken to increase the chances of seeing them. Look for areas of thick cover (dense, young conifer plantations are ideal) that border more open areas of mature deciduous woodland. Whilst it’s not uncommon to see boar in areas of relatively high human traffic, it’s best to seek areas further off the beaten track, where the boar are less likely to have been previously disturbed, and where more natural behaviour will generally be observed. Field-signs are well worth looking out for, but it’s best to ignore all but the most fresh footprints, droppings and excavations. Dawn and dusk are ideal times to see Wild Boar, but regardless of the time, it’s essential to remain as quiet and non-intrusive as possible.
A short film made for BBC Springwatch…